- By Julie Besonen The New York Times
A shabbily dressed man walked into an opulent restaurant. It was the 1970s, when people still made a sartorial effort for a night out in Manhattan. Alone, he took a seat in the lounge.
The restaurant’s owner, Laura Maioglio, wasn’t wearing her glasses, so her vision was blurry. She didn’t think much of the visitor. But her widowed mother, Piera Maioglio, who was with her, did. “Oh, that poor person, he doesn’t look like he can afford Barbetta,” Piera told her daughter.
Together they observed the man from their usual table in the back of the 100-seat dining room, lit by a majestic chandelier built in 1775, acquired from a palazzo in Turin, Italy.
A Barbetta menu from that era, at the New York Public Library in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Division, lists roast rack of lamb for two for $14.50. There was an additional 75-cent cover charge. Back then, it would have cost at least $20 a head for dinner with wine, plus an extra $2 to $3 for shavings of white truffle flown in from Piedmont, in Northern Italy. Dinner would easily cost about $150 for two today.
Piera, who was extremely beautiful, Laura recalled — “a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo” — instructed a waiter to bring the man a menu to alert him what he was in for. Once he saw the prices, she thought, he could make a face-saving excuse to leave and not have to skulk out after being seated in the dining room.
The Maioglio women had been watching over the theater district Italian restaurant, at 321 W. 46th St., since 1962. That was the year Piera’s husband and Barbetta’s founder, Sebastiano Maioglio, died at the age of 82. Laura was their only child.
The man didn’t budge after glancing at the menu, contending that he was waiting for three friends.
Laura went to take a closer look. It was Mick Jagger.
“Who’s Mick Jagger?” Piera asked.
“He’s with the Rolling Stones,” Laura said.
“Who are the Rolling Stones?” asked Piera.
These days at Barbetta, most guests dress casually. On a recent evening, Rick Miramontez, the press agent for “Hello, Dolly!” and “Springsteen on Broadway,” sat tie-less in the lounge, something he would not have dared to do when he visited for the first time in 1979. “It was very dressy, very starched, a necktie place through the ‘80s, no question,” he said.
Indeed, from its town house exterior to its brocade chairs and swag curtains, Barbetta is a throwback to the days of the fancy restaurant. There are no distressed-wood tables, no mixologists or vertical gardens on the premises. How it has managed to stay in business boils down to the realities of commercial real estate, the restaurant’s jewelry-box décor and reputation as an oasis of quiet refinement. And also the constant devotion of Laura Maioglio.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, besides the chic theatrical types who frequented Barbetta, the restaurant was also part of a high-society dining scene in Midtown that served as the backdrop for a shifting culture. In 1969, for example, Laura Maioglio had a front-row seat to what The Times described as the “pantsuit onslaught” — some establishments had started to permit women in pants, while others did not. One evening, Laura and her mother were refused a table at La Côte Basque when a maître d’ accused her of wearing pants, which were forbidden. “They were palazzo pajamas,” she said. “You couldn’t even tell they were split; they looked like an evening dress. ‘Very good,’ my mother said. ‘We’re going to the Four Seasons.'”
The Maioglios were hospitable to the core. Along with an older brother, Vincenzo, Sebastiano had opened his first restaurant, Maioglio Brothers, on West 39th Street in 1906 when he was a 26-year-old immigrant from Fubine, in Northern Italy (where Laura Maioglio still owns a small palazzo and vineyard). The original restaurant was near the old Metropolitan Opera House and luminaries who dined there included Enrico Caruso, Giacomo Puccini and Arturo Toscanini.
In 1925, Sebastiano Maioglio paid around $250,000 for four contiguous brownstones on West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, built by the Astor family in the latter 1800s. He moved the restaurant to his new collection of buildings and renamed it Barbetta, Italian for “little beard,” in honor of Vincenzo’s facial hair. His brother died the following year. Laura was reared in an apartment upstairs, in a neighborhood that some maps refer to as Hell’s Kitchen.
“It was not Hell’s Kitchen,” Laura Maioglio said heatedly. “It’s a very ugly term and was not used in my lifetime.”
Barbetta is the oldest restaurant on the block. “As every retailer and restaurateur knows these days, if you own your property instead of renting it, that’s the significant factor in being able to last in New York City,” said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. “Laura has stuck with her business through enormous odds, the nature of the challenges on that block going from too much drug traffic in the ‘70s and ‘80s to too much car traffic in the last decade.”
In 1973, when 16 establishments lined that particular strip, Mayor John Lindsay designated it Restaurant Row. Today, more than three dozen restaurants — stalwarts like Joe Allen, Orso and Becco — steal some of the spotlight from Barbetta, whose incandescent, vertical sign is made of opal glass. A forerunner of neon, it is the last of its kind in the city, according to the book “New York Neon,” by Thomas E. Rinaldi.
“Barbetta itself and Restaurant Row more broadly represent the contrast of tradition and turnover,” Tompkins said. “To use an automobile metaphor, Barbetta is a Bentley, whereas Joe Allen is a Range Rover. When you look at the mix of other places on the street, there are five Japanese restaurants and a Bareburger that cater to a new demographic.”
Despite her heritage, Laura Maioglio was not groomed for the restaurant industry. She attended the Brearley School on the Upper East Side and studied art history at Bryn Mawr. Her parents steered her toward cultural pursuits, taking her to Carnegie Hall, to the opera, on trips across the United States and to Italy.
“My father was highly intellectual, interested in the arts and music, but his family couldn’t afford to give him a university education,” she said. “He didn’t think running a restaurant would satisfy me. Nevertheless, I was very determined and naughty.”
Her strong will came into full force when her father became ill. In the early 1960s, she went behind his back to beg a buyer to renege on a deal he’d made to take over Barbetta. She couldn’t bear to see it leave the family.
“How could you have done this?” was the only criticism Laura heard from her ailing father when he learned she’d scuttled the transaction.
“Until the middle of the 20th century, nearly all restaurants were owned and run by individuals, or families, as opposed to companies,” said William Grimes, a former New York Times reporter and the author of “Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York.” “It’s only in our own time that we have seen the corporatization of the restaurant business and the rise of upscale operations like the Union Square Hospitality Group.”
Once Laura Maioglio had saved the family business, she set to work refurbishing the interior, scouring Italy for chandeliers and antiques and ordering reproductions of upholstered chairs she saw in museums. What began as a handsome, inexpensive restaurant became a haute experience emphasizing the Piedmont region and its prized Barolo and Barbaresco wines. She re-imagined the backyard as an Italianate garden. A fairy-tale wisteria tree of tangled vines is nearly big enough to camouflage a cast of “Into the Woods.” At the center is a fountain where four peeing cherubs sit astride the rim.
Now in its 112th year, Barbetta is one of the city’s oldest family-owned Italian restaurants and certainly the oldest second-generation, family-owned Italian restaurant. Bamonte’s, in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn, New York, is a little older, founded in 1900, but the fourth generation is now dominant.
There is no third generation waiting to take over at Barbetta. Laura Maioglio and her husband, Gunter Blobel, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Medicine, have no children.
Laura Maioglio won’t disclose her age. “Age is a number and mine is unlisted” is her line. On a night in late December, she wore a black and white patterned dress, gold Adidas sneakers and a jaunty beret over silver hair that fell past her shoulders. A walking stick was propped nearby. At intervals, she greeted passing guests — largely out-of-towners — with a nod and a genial “buona sera.”
Recalling that night when Jagger waited for his tardy friends — his bandmates — she schooled her mother on the Rolling Stones before they were led to a table. Piera Maioglio offered them a bottle of Dom Pérignon “and acted like she’d been listening to them for years.” They were so delighted by Piera they dubbed her “Mum” and became regulars. When she died in 1984, a band member — Laura Maioglio can’t remember which — brought flowers to the restaurant.
“I’ve served Keith Richards,” said Eduardo Maglio, 67, a garrulous man in a black tuxedo who has worked at the restaurant since 1989. He denied having a title other than “doing anything Laura tells me, but mostly talking to people and serving celebrities. I’m very good at that.”
Efforts to track down the Rolling Stones for corroboration failed, but in a 1977 Interview magazine piece, Andy Warhol (who became another regular) asked them, “Where do you eat in New York?” Ron Wood cited Barbetta, with Jagger chiming in, “Ronnie likes Barbetta ‘cause it’s so romantic.”
That romantic reputation has endured. Valentine’s Day is the busiest night of the year. A small orchestra, led by Felix Endico, will perform swing and cafe society music that evening, as they have for several years.
On Saturday nights year-round, Endico, 60, wears a pocket square and plays U.S. songbook standards on an upright Steinway piano in a dining room whose hue can be described as blushing. “As Time Goes By” is part of his repertoire, resonant in a place where time seems to have stopped long ago.
In the foyer is a baroque harpsichord that never gets played, shelves of 19th-century Staffordshire truffle hound figurines and a 20th-century (disconnected) phone booth. Throughout the restaurant and its four private dining rooms are original fireplaces, detailed woodwork and massive mirrors fit for the Royal House of Savoy. A computer is on the premises but so is carbon paper for making copies.
For cash transactions at the bar, Konstantinos Hristeas, known as Gus, springs open the drawer of a brass cash register built in 1912. He wears a black bow tie and white dinner jacket and said he has been a bartender there for 38 years, or maybe 42.
“You don’t pay attention, time goes by,” Hristeas, 69, said.
His manner was reserved but his eyes kindled when he recalled his teenage hunger for night life, climbing out the window of his home in Kalamata, Greece, to see his friends. He never wanted to become a baker, like his father, and he followed a sister to New York in the 1960s, when he was 18. He landed a job at El Morocco, the fabled nightclub on East 54th Street. As far as he knows, he is the only ex-staffer still on his feet.
“You went there to be seen and photographed,” said Grimes, the reporter. “A dazzling array of film stars, entertainers, socialites, sports figures — notables of all sorts — made it their mission to sit on the zebra banquettes and strike a pose.”
By comparison, Barbetta is quiet and sedate. When Hristeas sees celebrities, they pass him by on their way to the dining room.
At El Morocco, Frank Sinatra was one of his regulars. Hristeas recalled one night when Sinatra, known for his “$100, $150 tips,” asked a manager how much he’d have to pay for a certain crystal object on display. The manager set a price, Sinatra paid, then shattered it at the table. He removed something from the center of the broken glass, Hristeas said, and set it on fire. It was an image of Ava Gardner, one of Sinatra’s ex-wives.
Barbetta’s seven ornately carved bar stools have mostly sat empty for about a decade now, Hristeas said. Ninety percent of his work involves interacting with servers, not guests, so he rarely tells the stories of his shinier days.
His short-term memory is going, he admitted. Still, he can make rusty nails and sidecars without looking at recipes, instinctively reach for the right bottle of wine and effortlessly stir a martini. He once had 1,000 customers’ names memorized, no exaggeration, he said, but now can summon only a few. His back and hips hurt, and he feels dizzy sometimes. Yet he has no plans to retire.
“It’s an addiction, like a drug,” he said. “You go home for two, three days and have to come back.”
Don Castaldo, a sommelier, is a new hire, reorganizing a wine list that runs to 87 pages of primarily Italian reds. There are roughly 2,200 selections and 10,000 bottles kept in cellars under the restaurant, he said, dating to 1955 for a Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva for $800. Bargain hunters will also find bottles of white for as low as $30.
Nonetheless, Barbetta remains a high-end experience. Until 7:30 p.m. or so, a $58 pre-theater menu is in effect. At other times, cloudlike gnocchetti with a gossamer cheese sauce, pine nuts and fresh herbs is $19 for a half-portion. A half-portion of risotto with wild porcini mushrooms, a dish her father started serving in 1906, is $27. Rocky Marentek is credited as the chef de cuisine, but he has done things Laura Maioglio’s way since he came on board in 1999.
“Laura’s favorite song is ‘My Way,’ so I play that every Saturday,” said the pianist Endico.
Broadway stars, film actors, musicians, politicians and prominent business people still show up, said Maglio. Some seek it out for the private setting.
Madonna threw a cup of espresso at a sommelier (no longer employed there) after he tried to take her picture without her permission.
“We said we’re very sorry and then she calmed down, but she never came back,” Maglio said.
Others who have come back, according to Maglio: “Lin-Manuel Miranda with the wife, a lawyer, very nice people, even if somebody goes close to them and asks to take their photo. Many Nobel Prize winners because of Laura’s husband. Warren Buffett has come in a few times. All these people, I don’t know if they’re going to live forever, but they eat light and they tip generously. President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, they were wonderful. For President Clinton we did a special vegan pasta and he started with a salad. The wife ate the salmon. He went to every single table to say hello, take pictures with everybody. People were sending bottles of wine and Champagne to their table and they refused, no, no, no, they were going to the theater.”
The Clintons have not returned since the 2016 election, but their daughter, Chelsea, has.
For Valentine’s Day, festive attire is requested, but otherwise no strict dress code is enforced.
“You almost cry to be sitting in a milieu like this, frozen in time, and look at the way people dress, no suits, no ties,” said Wallace Jordan, who wore a bespoke suit from London himself, his age “somewhere between 40 and death.” He grew up across the street, in a brownstone also built by the Astors, and comes in frequently for dinner.
Of 450 reviews in late January on TripAdvisor.com, the majority were positive. Others called it “a little too old for my liking” and “stuck in the past.”
The world around Barbetta has changed, but its otherworldly interior cannot, designated in 1993 as a landmark by the Italian organization Locali Storici d’Italia. “Why wouldn’t I want to have it landmarked?” Laura Maioglio said. “It’s extremely important.”
And so it beats on, the past and the present intertwined. The future is unwritten.