The Fabulous Maccioni Boys

Their father turned Le Cirque into a legendary outpost of glamour and haute cuisine, and now the sons of Sirio think it's time to step up to the plate themselves.

The skies opened up and dropped three feet of snow on Manhattan the night before that January day in 1996 when Sirio Maccioni, the legendary ringmaster of Le Cirque, was to open what he liked to call "our little Tuscan bistro," Osteria del Circo, just across town. He did it for his wife, Egidiana, and their three boys, he says, "because my sons need their own restaurant." For years, as one son or another won compliments juggling prime tables for the demanding masters of the universe in the usually overbooked Le Cirque, Sirio Maccioni had defended himself: "It's not my fault they are in this business. I pushed them to be doctors, lawyers, architects—anything but this. Maybe I pushed too hard," he would brood. "Not that I am not happy to have all three with me."

Egi Maccioni agrees."Sirio, he didn't force them. We never encouraged them to take on this difficult life. Still, they started to breathe this atmosphere when they were very little. We took them all over to the restaurants of the great chefs. And you know Sirio, how he is. He has only one subject."

And so it was that the second-generation Maccionis shoveled the drifts to get the door open that January morning. Oldest son Mario handled the logistics with the landlord and the engineering. As wine steward and troubleshooter, middle son Marco printed the wine list and crawled into a duct to solve the problem when the restaurant filled with smoke. Mauro, the youngest, hovered anxiously behind the cooks, leaning in to sniff the soup and sticking a spoon into the marinara sauce every few minutes. And the three brothers whirled dizzily about the room doing what I call The Sirio, a dance of seductive attendance that makes the customer feel essential, steps learned by osmosis, watching the master.

When I sneak in without advance warning for a first taste at Circo (pronounced CHEER-co) two Sundays later, the whole clan is there. Egi has propped the royal grandchild, six-month-old Olivia, at the maître d's podium on top of the reservation book so that the parents—Mario and his wife, Lauren—can have a quiet dinner together. Marco slips away early, his first night off. Overhead, bright red-and-yellow-checked banners suggest a circus tent. Mechanical metal clowns look out from a ledge over the open kitchen. And a monkey chases a waiter in a revolving mobile high above. Wonderful goofy touches Adam Tihany's rich, wood-paneled design.

Sirio, free on Sunday, sweeps into his sons' eatery to give away pizzas to an Almanac Gotham of his uptown clients, and to stir the very green serving crew into a frenzy. "He's driving the waiters crazy," confides Mauro, a lanky beanpole. He shrugs, smiling ruefully, as his father clears tables and races for napkins to keep things moving. Even before we can order, a crackle of pizza pazzo arrives, with ribbons of splendid prosciutto piled atop bubbling mascarpone-tomato sauce. Of course we must have the Tuscan 30-vegetable zuppe alla Frantoiana and Mama Egi's own bitter-greens-and-ricotta-plumped ravioli in a puddle of butter touched with leaves of sage. It is her Tuscan recipes that have inspired the menu. Young Mauro glides by again later. "You must try a tasting of our Circo desserts." Very à la Papa. "I'm sorry," I say. "But your brother Mario beat you to it. Our desserts are already on their way." He shakes his head disconsolately. "I'm behind the ball. Please don't tell my father."

Though no one in the Maccioni family ever quite focused on the inevitability of a restaurant dynasty, or so they say, a little nepotism came to seem irresistible. One by one, the sons of Sirio and Egidiana have gone from playing hide-and-seek in the party room at Le Cirque to gliding across the floor, carefully so as not to spill Barbara Walter's flute of champagne, to standing in for their vacationing father at Le Cirque. And finally, to actually running the playfully beautiful three-million-dollar trattoria Pops built for them, so they'd have a place all their own with no obligations to outside investors. True, Sirio can't help being bossy, but the five of them plotted and fought and negotiated how Circo would be run. From the beginning Mauro, now 28, channeled his passion for cooking into a focus on the menu and the kitchen. Marco, now 33, oversaw the cellar. Mario, 36, exercised his Cornell MBA, running interference with the landlord, systems, and payroll. And all of them, tutored from adolescence in the Maccioni charm school, did relays on the floor, waltzing attendance through lunch and dinner. With three of them and a front-of-the-house crew drilled in the Maccioni style, it didn't matter that at any moment the phone could ring and one or the other might be summoned to second Papa in his diplomatic rounds at Le Cirque.

When Las Vegas gambling impresario Steve Wynn decided that Le Cirque was the lure he needed to entice star restaurateurs to open shop in his three-billion-dollar Bellagio, it was number one son, Mario, he wooed, flying him back and forth five times on his private jet, "promising him the world," says Sirio. "I didn't want Las Vegas. I would have preferred opening a third place in New York. But Mario said, 'It's a good deal. We should do it.' " At first Wynn wanted only Le Cirque, but Mario convinced him that he wanted Circo too. As the Maccioni philosophy requires a Maccioni in-house, Mario moved west with Lauren and Olivia, committed to spending at least two years there.

It was Mario who devised the menus with his comrade-in-desert-exile, Le Cirque New York's veteran chef Marc Poidevin, and it was Mario who fought for more kitchen space. "He's a better diplomat than me," says Sirio, "I would have killed someone. "Though casino experts warned it was suicide in congenitally casual Vegas, Sirio insisted on a jacket-and-tie policy at Le Cirque, and Mario agreed. Wynn went for it. "If one of my players can afford to lose a million dollars and he can't wear a tie, don't seat him."

In no time. a small jewel-box version of Le Cirque and a sprawling circus-bright Circo, side by side, facing Bellagio's vast lake and its preposterous, wonderfully silly dancing waters, were coining money for the clam coffers. Lauren, who left her job in advertising to make the move, had been counting the days till their exile would end. But with twin boys now in addition to daughter Olivia and a lifestyle she could never afford to re-create in Manhattan, she seems resigned to making the best of things on the desert's edge. The family has voted a go-ahead to Mario's plans for a freestanding restaurant to feed the town's booming burbs. "When I stand on my terrace I see nothing but new homes, stretching all the way to the mountains," he says, "and only two or three restaurants nearby to feed them."

Back at Circo, the duo of Marco and Mauro now run the show—and they don't always agree. "Stop fighting in front of the clients," Egi will cry. "It's never that serious," insists Mauro. "We work it out." Sirio sent his youngest off for the summer to prep in some of Italy's most fabled kitchens, then retreated with Egi to his home in Montecatini, the once-grand spa town where he grew up penniless and orphaned by the war. Marco, slim and dashing in his Armani suit, was left to cycle furiously between Le Cirque and Circo. True, longtime manager Benito Sevarin and the maître d' have mastered the ego-polishing routines required in the historic Villard Houses where Le Cirque 2000 thrives in a circus of purple velvet, red leather, and defiant neon. One night Marco caught the eye of a People editor and was photographed hugging his 140-pound baby bull mastiff, Mostro, for the magazine's roster of America's 100 most eligible bachelors ("along with George Clooney," he marvels).

Growing up, it was always Egi with the boys. "My wife, she is so good," Sirio boasts. "She was a famous singer—had a show in Carnegie Hall, did a big city tour for RCA. Then she made the mistake of marrying me. The next year, another tour, but the third year she had Mario and said: 'Either I'm a mother or a singer.' "

Marco remembers the mornings. "Mom would take us all to his bedroom to kiss him goodbye before school and he'd be snoring." She would drop Mario at P.S. 59 and be waiting for his exit to take them all to Central Park so Papa could nap. "We almost lived in the children's zoo in Central Park and in all the museums," Marco reminisces. "We had triple bunk beds, and when we were small my mother made up a baby stroller rigged with plastic covers so we wouldn't get wet in the rain."

Marco recalls being 14 or 15 and Sirio saying, "You know you don't have to be a restaurateur." Marco grins as if at the futility of the exercise. "I thought I'd be an architect. He said he'd arrange for me to talk to I.M. Pei. Whatever we wanted was fine. If it was medicine we could talk to Dr. Jarvik [who invented the heart valve], Dr. Baker, the plastic surgeon, and oh yes, Dr. Atkins. Acting? There was Anthony Quinn, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland. And Mr. Zeckendorf would tell us about real estate."

Awake, Sirio was forever dashing the few blocks to the restaurant (which was then in the Mayfair Hotel), building an Upper East Side rendezvous into an international phenomenon. The trend sheets and glossies—Women's Wear Daily, New York Magazine, Town & Country—documented Sirio's masterly pampering of the powerful, the territorial Euros, and the bubble-coiffed blondes sardined cheek-to-cheek on the royal banquette.

To bring the boys and their father together for at least an hour in the evening, Egi and brood would troop off to Le Cirque for dinner at six o'clock, even though one or the other child moaned and begged for McDonald's. "Sirio liked to show off his sons," Egi remembers. Sirio would send his boys out on the floor.

Mauro remembers wearing a little bow tie and carrying a gift flute of Champagne from Sirio to one of the famously bouffant blondes. Marco, the sociable one, used to come up to Sirio and say, "Don't you want me to bring the people Champagne?" Sirio shakes his head: "It seems the people were giving him five-dollar tips. I never found out or I would have killed him. Then I discover the secret. He says, 'But Daddy, I see the waiters take money.' " Mario never went along with Sirio's idea of saving the best tables for special friends, according to Marco. Mario would seat Mr. Kissinger in the far corner. "A table is a table," he would declare—a line guaranteed to ignite a tirade from Pops.

In the beginning it was a part-time job, after school and then summers. "Like other boys had paper routes," Mario recalls. He was still in high school when Sirio tossed him to the snarling tigers on the other end of the reservation line. "It was trial by fire. People are very pushy. 'Don't you know who I am? I'm Sirio's best friend.' I tried to look as busy as I could and not knock anything over. I made critical mistakes. It was petrifying going to a table the first time. I fought it tooth and nail."

Mario continues, "There were screaming matches. 'I don't want to go. I don't want to do this.' I can't remember when I came around. I had seen my father go through hard times and working horrible hours. I wanted to go to film school. But finally I capitulated. Slowly I adapted and fell into it. Maybe it wasn't my first choice. But everybody eats, and in this business you see a swath of life, a swath of people. If I were an investment banker I would only be hanging out with investment bankers. And I do feel close family ties. Maybe I was being a little lazy. It was all right there in front of me. I thought: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

"Las Vegas has been good for Mario," says Sirio. "He is very diplomatic, very successful, very sure of himself. I had to work ten years to buy my apartment and a used car from Potemkin; after eight months in Las Vegas, Mario already had three cars, a mansion with five bedrooms, a garden, and a pool. The pool's a necessity. If you don't have a pool in Las Vegas you have to put your children in the icebox. For the same money Marco has a one-bedroom apartment in Rockefeller Tower on East 54th Street. We can see his window from ours."

Marco was innocent and eager for initiation that first Saturday on the job at Le Cirque. "My dad was eating a late lunch at the bar--definitely you do not want to go near him then. He tells me to answer the phone and to tell everyone that it's full, full, full. But people won't take no. They insist on talking to Sirio. I hand him the phone. He is furious. 'You take care of it. I don't care if it's the President or the Pope.' And then I discover that he's testing me—he has Felix the bookkeeper calling and asking for phony reservations. One day the President did call. I said, 'No, we're full.' And my father grabbed the phone. 'You idiot. That IS the President.'

Marco has always had a nose for wines. Sirio instructed him, "When it's a table of good people, people that you know, offer a good bottle of wine." He continues, "And one day I catch him giving away a three-thousand-dollar Pétrus." Marco defended himself: "But, Papa, you told me to offer a good bottle of wine."

By tradition, in Europe the great chefs and restaurateurs welcome the sons of their peers into their kitchens and their dining rooms. It's a glorified prep school for budding dauphins. Mario spent summer vacations from Cornell at Roger Vergé's Michelin-starred Moulin de Mougins on the Côte d'Azur and at the Ritz in Paris. Marco, too European to even consider studying in Ithaca, felt more comfortable doing his masters at the Parisian outpost of Cornell. He was like a sponge every summer at the three-star Les Crayères in Reims, absorbing the style and rituals of Gérard Boyer and his wife. Sirio wanted each of them to have a fourth language after English, Italian, and Spanish. "All Italians speak Spanish without studying," he observes. Mario went to St. Petersburg for Russian. Marco chose German as a fourth language. Mauro planned to go to Beijing, but then he fell in love, says Sirio. "He is always falling in love. For a while, when Mauro was studying government at Columbia, I thought he would be the maverick son." As a teenager he played basketball. "I never got the last four inches I needed to be a Knick," Mauro jokes now. "But I thought about other professions. There was nothing I was drawn to. I knew I wanted to do something I enjoyed in a business where I had the ability, and one day I realized this was it."

Always glued to Egi's side as a youngster in the kitchen and, as he puts it, "always pestering the cooks at Circo with ideas," Mauro asked to apprentice not in the dining room but in the kitchen--serious drudgery. He arrived home from Florence this past fall eager to teach Circo's chefs some of the dishes he'd learned and with a new chef recruit. Two Michelin three-star chefs (Michel Troisgros in Roanne and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris) had invited him to their kitchens. And the manager of the Ritz, a crony of Sirio's, wanted to put him up at the hotel as his guest. It was an ironic coda to Sirio's own youthful arrival in Paris, where he had been tossed without a franc from his lowly job in the Plaza Athénée kitchen and told not to come back till he learned French. Sirio went for help to the only person he knew in Paris, a countryman from near by his hometown who had taken the name Yves Montand. That's how Sirio got an audition to be in the Folies Bergère's chorus. He was not a success. "I was too thin, all bones, and the girls were too beautiful. . . . I could not control myself, if you know what I mean."

When Sirio complains that life is too easy for his sons, he is boasting too. "Mauro does not realize how difficult things are because he's living at the Ritz. Marco wanted me to give him our car from Montecatini. It's a Ferrari in the body of a Lancia, built during the time of the extreme left when you didn't dare drive a Ferrari." Only 300 were made. " 'Why don't you give me the Ferrari?' Marco said to me. 'I want to drive it for you, Papa. To show to the French the Italians are better. Because we go to work in a Ferrari.' "

Manhattan is in gridlock. All the leaders of the world have convened for the United Nations Millennium Summit gabfest. The MTV Video Music Awards further complicate traffic jams around Rockefeller Center. Mauro—the sole Maccioni in town—is racing between Circo and Le Cirque 2000, where the usual petulant, pampered clients are competing with statesmen and their toadies for what they consider the prime tables. No wonder Mauro seems a little green about the gills when I arrive unexpectedly for dinner at Circo. I see him duck into the kitchen. A few minutes later, between the tuna tartare and asparagus antipasti, the waiter brings us small saucers of marvelous porcini risotto, "a gift from the kitchen," he says. Considering this rich extra, I'm glad that I resisted my favorite potato gnocchi Bolognese in favor of the Tuscan fish soup cacciucco—a gathering of lobster, prawns, calamari, monkfish, clams, and mussels in a tomatoey stew. Mauro has disappeared. It's almost midnight when I see him again, looking unmussed and unstressed, having done his version ofThe Sirio for the crosstown VIPs. He approvinglysurveys the gussied-up desserts that now blanket our table, especially the little that's left of the doughnuts with the grinning clown's face in chocolate. Mauro has a languorous, sexy smile and black eyebrows like the accent grave the French use in the word "cèpe." Only one hand rubbing the other betrays that he's not yet entirely comfortable standing tableside. "I'd like you to taste the new dishes I've brought back from Florence," he says. "We are making our own mostarda fruits now, too. And we have a new source for prosciutto. We are redesigning the menu." The Tuscan classics will be listed on one side, he explains, and on the other, Circo favorites—like the seared tuna and the lobster salad with fennel and grapefruit, musts for fans who would rather die than taste Egi's marvelous Parmesan-dusted tripe. "I still get aggravated when we're not named the best Italian restaurant in New York," he says, looking directly at me. Well, I am the critic who wishes that Circo were more boldly Tuscan. Then to my friends he says: "I want to apologize. I just had to send you the porcini risotto. I—I," he searches for a way to explain. "We understand," one of my pals reassures him. "You couldn't help yourself, because it's in your genes."

After so many years of just one LeCirque, Sirio is encouraged by his sons' ambitions and the Las Vegas experience to expand the empire. The new owners of the Bellagio have asked Mario to open yet another restaurant—this at the MGM Grand. Instead of one day returning east, Mario and Lauren might decide to take the act west to California. Back in New York, Mauro dreams of opening a small regional trattoria downtown. He would like to shop at the fish market himself every day, "But if I go to bed at two or three, it's impossible. Sometimes after a night out I'll stop to buy the fish, give it to the chef at Circo, and then go home to bed." But the family's downtown venture will be big—not the snuggery Mauro desires. Not yet. "It doesn't make financial sense right now," he admits. "It's tough to do restaurants the way we do. I knew that going in. We're hands-on. But now I have the energy; when I have a family and children it will be different. I won't do it the way my father did. These are different times." And he says later, "But I'm married to the business." There is no formal structure at Circo, no corporate office. A board meeting may consist of a Saturday lunch with Mario flying in from Las Vegas.

Sirio keeps track, loving and judgmental. In one of his long run-on monologues he analyzes: "Mario has grown. And he knows what he's doing. Marco has charm; he works a room. You notice him right away. Mauro is very ambitious. One day Mauro may be the strongest. But now . . . he's too tense. They tell me he is better when I'm not around. At home he asks me, 'Do you have a sleeping pill?' I say, 'You're twenty-eight years old. Why do you need a sleeping pill?' And he says 'Well, Mrs. So-and-So sent something back which was perfectly good.' I tell him, 'It happens. Go to sleep.' "

How are the three of you different? I ask Mauro. "Marco is headstrong, like our father. Mario has his sociability. I have maybe his drive. Mario's down to earth, Americanized, optimistic like my mother—she always sees the glass half-full. Marco is more Italian—he plays soccer, not basketball. Marco and I are cynical. We see the half-empty glass, just like my father."

The Maccionis are taking no chanceson the weather. They are prudently celebrating Circo's fifth birthday in early September—a sure way to avoid snowdrifts. They have tented the adjacent plaza between 54th and 55th streets and wrapped the canvas around the front sidewalk café, where they have placed an extraordinary tree with branches dangling figs, pomegranates, and strawberries. Mario and Lauren have flown in for a 36-hour stay. For the first time in months all the Maccionis are together, including Mostro, Marco's mastiff, greeting friends and regulars, what passes for society these days, and the original Le Cirque stalwarts and their grown children. Tony Bennett, Woody Allen, Liz Smith, Miss U.S.A., Ed Bradley, Alain Ducasse, Adam Tihany, Nan Kempner—enough glitz to feed the ravenous paparazzi. And then food too: pizzettes, salami and sausages, prosciutto from Parma, the very best Parmigiano and artisanal breads, fried calamari and shrimp, suckling pig, and figs with foie gras. Maccioni home movies play on a giant video screen. In the crowd unrecognized is the mayor of Montecatini. New York's Mayor Giuliani himself drops in to deliver a "proclamation" naming September 12, 2000, Osteria Del Circo Day. The music stops. Sirio, Egi, and the entire clan stand in front of the flickering home movies; and it is Marco who takes the mike and says thank you.

The next day the Maccionis are backto business. Kissing the air above jeweled knuckles on Madison Avenue. Being flamboyantly Italian in Paris and slaving in the kitchen. Impressing the bourgeoisie in Las Vegas. Mulling over tempting offers from Santa Barbara, London, and Paris. "There is a certain spot on the Place Vêndome," says Sirio. He's always wanted a triumph in Paris. Who knows how long the Maccionis can resist the challenge.

Gael Greene on Vegas

Las Vegas—The town has spent billions sprucing itself up, hoping to become the world's favorite resort destination. It's still classic Las Vegas at the heart and along the fringes—so if you're overly sensitive to sleaze and the teeming masses, you might skip it and miss a lot of laughs, a dose of sociology on the hoof, and lushly truffled risotto. That said, my mate and I settle into a waterside table for lunch at Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio, each course marked by a cooling chorus of the hotel's syncopated fountains. Starched and clean and spiffy in circus harlequin checks of red and yellow, Circo feels far from the madness of blackjack tables and slot machines as we share a thin-edged pizza. From the taste and texture I might believe that Mamma Egi herself rolled out my sheep's-milk-ricotta-and-spinach ravioli. Of course, in the name of research I have to taste the sugared doughnuts, Circo's mythic chocolate-, raspberry-, and vanilla-filled bomboloni. My prudent mate prefers the perfect citrus fix of his orange-sorbet-filled bombe.

Next door, beneath its pale green and rose silk-taffeta-tented ceiling, designer Adam Tihany's exquisite miniature Le Cirque at the Bellagio—complete with boudoir-striped banquettes and clown murals—is as crowded at dinner as its Manhattan namesake. Intricate wood marquetry marks the entrance through the bar, and a long rectangular table accommodates a festive party that couldn't be squeezed in.

Summer truffles mingle their scent with the vegetable intensity of luscious chilled pea soup. The sweetness of sea scallops—barely opaque and caramelized around the edges—is balanced by the tang of a perfect late-summer tomato, chopped and moistened with fragrant olive oil. The evening special, baby bass stuffed with grilled lobster on a gravel of couscous with roasted porcini, is much ado about too many ingredients. My lobster risotto with its sticky red-wine glaze is a far better choice, and I'm impressed by the quality of my mate's veal chop served with picholine olives and braised root vegetables. The desserts are the usual Le Cirque masterworks: the mythic crème brûlée, of course, a tasting of chocolate with swirls of caramel and exclamation points of passionfruit coulis, plus a pair of dice filled with chocolate mousse and praline cream.