As scientifically proven by Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, Liberace, and a cast of thousands, there’s no correlation between fame and taste. That’s literally true in the restaurant business, where celebrities have piled up a fairly cursed track record. I’ve waded through waterlogged pulled pork at a doomed Justin Timberlake barbecue joint, seen the charred ruins of Moby’s burnt-down vegetarian café, and suffered through as many bad pro athlete-owned sports bars as there are pro athletes. All seem blessed compared with Britney Spears, who, back when she was merely pop tart rather than punchline, opened a Manhattan restaurant that tried to make a run at success serving “Southern sushi,” as in fried chicken rolled in rice, and wound up sued and in bankruptcy.
The idea of the greatest wiseguy ever on television dining at the restaurant of the greatest wiseguy ever on film seemed pretty perfect, but became clear that Gandolfini wasn’t there for De Niro.
Which brings us to America’s most prolific celebrity restaurateur, Robert De Niro, whose culinary body of work is as varied as his screen oeuvre, if less lustrous. He’s had an overrated, big-budget production, Tribeca Grill (think Casino); a supporting role in another person’s blockbuster, Nobu (think Godfather Part II); and, most recently, an outright bomb, the New York opening Ago, a pretentious, incompetent Italian spot that imploded to the cackling glee of most that had ventured there (think Cop Land). I won’t bother to mention a slew of others he kept a hand in, on both coasts and around the world, but there’s been no Goodfellas, no Raging Bull, no restaurant with his direct stamp to call his personal masterpiece.
That changed a few weeks ago when he quietly returned to the physical carcass of Ago and reopened it as the more casual, friendly Locanda Verde. And in doing so, he showed that famous people can be good restaurateurs too – as long as they hire well and then stay far away.
De Niro’s secret here is letting someone else be the star. Specifically, he brought in Andrew Carmellini, who despite his last name trained in the best French kitchens in New York (Lutece, Lespinasse, Café Boulud), infusing his Italian cooking with a sense of bold sophistication. Carmellini’s first solo restaurant in, the excellent A Voce, showed that he could mix haute French with grandma’s kitchen, as in duck-and-foie-gras meatballs.
Locanda Verde also demonstrates that De Niro doesn’t have a tin ear: The prices are Obama-era (about $16 for a pasta, with most of the bottles on the all-Italian wine list running $50 or less) and the golden drapes and other suffocating trappings of Ago have been blown out in favor of wooden beams and mirrors tilted like a funhouse.
The food itself is rustic: Peasant grub with a master’s touch. A wet pile of sheep’s milk ricotta, with flecks of sea salt, sesame and zaatar, which you can slather over country bread. A return to perfectly dense meatballs, this time lamb, piled high as a mini-slider, with yogurt and pickle slices. “Sunday ragu” full of sinewy strands of pork and beef, which get caught in the spools of twisty-shaped fiorentini pasta, all perfumed with a provolone as distinct as musk. Carmellini’s signature dish is a carved-up chicken for two that tastes the way garlic would if it were meat. The chef pickles the bird in a brine that’s surely liquid garlic, slow cooks it all day, then finishes the chicken in a wood-burning oven, lending it a touch of char.
A friend witnessed some Hollywood attitude. Dining separately, she saw a group of Wall Street traders, flashing big bills, buy a walk-in table after she had been told she’d have to wait 40 minutes. On my visits, however, I viewed equal-opportunity snubbing. During one meal, taken at the bar because the wait for a table stretched to two hours, I looked a few seats down the counter and caught another dining-room refugee, James Gandolfini, donning a shaved head and blue short-sleeve shirt.
The idea of the greatest wiseguy ever on television dining at the restaurant of the greatest wiseguy ever on film seemed pretty perfect, but it was clear from his boisterous consuming that Gandolfini wasn’t there for De Niro, who was nowhere to be found, but rather Carmellini, who eventually freed himself from the open kitchen, an “AC” dotting his galley whites, to get his ring kissed. The A-List chef as the star, with the A-ist customer and the A-ist owner in supporting roles. That’s a formula other celebrities could imitate, one that merits De Niro some applause.
Randall Lane is the former editor-in-chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. Magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes.