Manhattanites can count on at least a few immutable facts: that it will be impossible to catch a cab at 5 p.m., that the Long Island Expressway will be a parking lot on Memorial Day and that every night at 8 p.m., Il Mulino will be so crowded that the celebrities, business magnates and politicians who frequent the famed Italian restaurant will rub elbows not only with each other, but very nearly with each other’s ossobuco.
Jerry Katzoff, who bought the iconic Greenwich Village eatery with Brian Galligan in 2001, was eating there one night when he noticed that his table’s corner was jutting through the open-backed chair of a neighboring diner.
“I felt bad. I owned the restaurant and it was going into his back. So I pulled the table and I startled the guy,” Mr. Katzoff told The Observer. “I said, ‘The table was in your back,’ and he said, ‘Are you kidding? To get a seat at Il Mulino? I don’t care what you do.’”
It’s that kind of place. It’s been that kind of place since it opened 31 years ago. Reservations are impossible to get, although regulars always seem able to swing a seat at one of the 17 tightly packed tables. (Rumors swirl of a VIP line.) George Clooney was there the other week, and so was the rapper Drake, accompanied by a sizable entourage. Tommy Mottola, Tony Bennett and Ronald Perelman are regulars. When Bill Clinton needed a place to have a tête-à-tête with Obama, he picked Il Mulino. Asked how the lunch had gone, Mr. Clinton told the Times, “It was good. It was Il Mulino, how could it not be?”
Il Mulino has what every restaurateur covets—that rare, elusive magic that makes a restaurant feel like the place where everyone wants to be. It is a fickle magic, hard to capture, difficult to maintain and almost impossible to replicate.
Except that replicating it is precisely what Mr. Katzoff and Mr. Galligan set out to do when they bought the restaurant, envisioning a chain of Il Mulinos across the country and the world, all of them brilliant, sparkling successes just like the first. It hasn’t gone exactly that way. In the last eight years, they have opened thriving Il Mulinos in Miami, Long Island, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Aspen, Puerto Rico, Atlantic City and Disney World, but the eateries in Houston, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Chicago have all closed.
Now they’ve ventured what could either be their safest foray or their riskiest—an outpost on the Upper East Side, which opened earlier this month after a series of socialite-packed tastings arranged by the restaurant’s publicist, Lizzie Grubman, a savvy choice, given her considerable skill at generating buzz. When she helped open Moomba—a now-shuttered downtown eatery and lounge that was for a brief time in the late 1990s The Place To Be—she had the restaurant tell callers that there weren’t any reservations, even though the place was empty.
“Those are the tricks we would play to make a restaurant hot,” she said. “But with Il Mulino, I don’t need to play any tricks.”
The Upper East Side may seem, at first glance, like difficult terrain—the well-heeled crowd that does the bulk of its socializing between Fifth and Park has been rotating between Fred’s, Cipriani, Amaranth and Nello for ages. Creatures of habit though they may be, many Upper East Siders, particularly the younger ones, are hungry for something different.
“We eat in the same few places all the time; there aren’t that many new restaurants in the neighborhood,” said Shoshanna Gruss. “I mean, I go to Mezzaluna every single Sunday, but I’ve done that since I was 12. I’m always saving things I read about downtown restaurants, thinking, ‘we’ll go there someday,’” she laughed. “It’s nice that this is a two-block walk and you don’t have to worry about the president being in town,” she said. “There’s not a lot newness up here.”
Still, opening a second branch of a beloved New York restaurant within the city limits is a tricky task to pull off. As any starlet knows, the spotlight is never as bright when it’s shared. A second location runs not only the risk that it will sputter out and die, but that it could also drag down the original Il Mulino, a commodity the owners guard carefully. When an opportunity to buy the building next door on West Third Street came up, they declined, fearing that a larger dining room would ruin the intimate mood.
“It was a hard decision,” said Mr. Katzoff, when The Observer met him and Mr. Galligan for lunch at the uptown restaurant last week. “If we opened a second location and the reservations went down, then the dynamic would change at our anchor. Il Mulino is the greatest brand. It’s our Mercedes-Benz.”
“You don’t want to bastardize the brand,” said Mr. Galligan.
The restaurant was an instant hit when it was opened in 1981 by Italian brothers Gino and Fernando Masci. Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton took the nine-month-old place to task for its crowded tables, uncomfortable chairs, deafening noise and soporific lighting. But she ended with lavish praise: “What made us want to stay were some dishes that were about as good as they can be.”
It reeked of garlic and authenticity and, maybe most of important of all, it was a scene. Mr. Katzoff said that, almost from the start, the brothers got into the habit of overbooking the tables; there was always a wait and the restaurant was always crowded.
“They didn’t care if you had money or not. They looked at you like, ‘I don’t give a fuck if you have money,’ which actually made it really cool,” said a regular who’s been eating at the restaurant since the early 1980s. Although, of course, you did have to have enough money not to panic when the check came.
Mr. Katzoff is a lawyer by training and a brand manager and developer by profession. In the 1980s he and his wife Lee bought The Greenhouse Spa, an upscale Dallas destination spot that they expanded to 47 locations, before selling the empire in 2001. He also owns a minor league baseball team—the Reno Aces—with his son and a day care business in Pennsylvania. He and Lee live on the Upper East Side, within walking distance of the new Il Mulino. “If you asked me if I was in the restaurant business, I would say that I’m really in the brand business,” he told us.
Mr. Galligan, on the other hand, is very much in the restaurant business; he runs a hospitality consulting group that opened the Ilo Restaurant at Bryant Park Hotel the same year he bought Il Mulino with Mr. Katzoff.
In Il Mulino, the pair saw a wild success on which to build an empire, even though the original owners warned that they’d never be able to duplicate Il Mulino’s charms elsewhere. The partners’ philosophy has been that nothing should ever change about the dining experience. The decor, on the other hand, is fair game: they’ve updated it for the new locations, while the original spot retains its dowdy, leafy wallpaper and white lace curtains that call to mind an elderly aunt’s powder room.
“I try to keep everything—the menu, the food, the service, the size—the same,” said Mr. Katzoff. There is no famous chef, but rather what the owners describe as very talented cooks overseen by chef Michele Mazza. Once the patron is seated, free appetizers start arriving immediately—bruschetta, garlic bread, fried zucchini, salami, mussels, a dizzying variety of breads and a huge hunk of Parmesan cut from a massive slab that is wheeled around the restaurant in a display of almost frightening abundance.
Plates of cream puffs have a way of appearing after the meal whether they are ordered or not. The entrees are of similarly gargantuan sizes and the general feeling is one of largesse, overabundance and cheerful excess, enhanced by entrée prices, many of which top $50 (the Dover sole is $70).
So why hasn’t the food and the service made the denizens of Houston and Atlanta as mad for Il Mulino as New Yorkers are? “The other locations, we do well, but they don’t have that New York thing,” admitted Mr. Katzoff.
Mr. Galligan describes that thing as a level of sophistication about food and wine, and indeed, New York has a deep-rooted foodie culture. But there’s also a collective willingness here to hustle, even suffer, for the things one truly wants, whether it’s a wait-listed “it” bag or a table for four.
“If you have an 8 p.m. reservation you expect to have dinner sometime that night, but not necessarily at 8 p.m. I think people accept things in New York that they don’t accept in other locations,” said Mr. Katzoff.
Times restaurant critic Pete Wells pointed out that the real draw is twofold: “a great New York crowd,” along with a style of hospitality that is far from the dictionary definition. “Look at the Four Seasons maitre d’ Julian Niccolini,” he said. “He teases the guests, he assaults them, he plays games with them and they love it. Sometimes in New York, making people feel at home means taking a little bit of their self-importance away.”
As for the failures outside New York City, Messrs. Katzoff and Galligan attribute them to bad locations, especially in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. (Turns out the entire South, save for Florida, is a bad location for a New York restaurant as well.) But Chicago Reader food critic Mike Sula, who pronounced the restaurant “nothing special” when it opened in 2006, had a different opinion. “It was a silly, overpriced place with not particularly outstanding food,” Mr. Sula said when we reached him on the phone. “There just wasn’t a reason for people to go.”
Unlike the downtown restaurant, The Il Mulino on East 60th Street is bright and airy, its walls painted a creamy panna cotta and covered with black-and-white glamour shots. The menu features all the downtown favorites, but also salads and lighter fare. These are, after all, patrons for whom lunching is a form of recreation as much as a bodily necessity.
On the afternoon we had lunch there, it was packed with older Upper East Siders. “These people would not come downtown, because it’s too crowded and they would not get seated right away,” Mr. Katzoff said, gesturing at a woman with a thick gold jewelry and an leopard print collar framing her taut face. “This is really becoming a neighborhood staple,” he said excitedly.
“These are not nobodies,” Ms. Grubman said, flashing a knowing smile.
Her carefully orchestrated tastings have filled the restaurant with the likes of socialites Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord, Helen Schifter and Dori Cooperman. “I knew it had to be a different scene if it was going up against Cirpriani and Fred’s and Nello,” Ms. Grubman told us later. “We had to form a bridge between the people and the restaurant to make them feel comfortable. It’s a very residential area, so it’s crucial that it’s user-friendly.”
Just not too friendly. “I like it—there are a lot of Upper East Side social people,” Ms. Cooperman told The Observer. “I like that they have a special VIP line.” (So the rumors were true!) She added that she loved the spaghetti Bolognese.
The real question is, what happens when buzz fades? If you’re lucky, a hot spot quiets into a comfortable neighborhood favorite, which is, in large part, what the owners are angling for. Buzz is a fleeting, fragile thing. When we asked Grub Street writer Alan Sytsma what creates it, he compared it to trying to host a really good party. Every night. For 10 years.
Assuming the location on East 60st Street thrives, they owners have their eye on Los Angeles, and then, maybe even Brooklyn.
“I think it’s a great food market, a great development market with the arena there,” said Mr. Galligan, who admitted that he also had his eye on some locations closer to home. “I’d like to do another one further up on the Upper East Side, above 86th Street, or maybe Lincoln Center,” he said.