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Italian-American culture

From 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 West 46th Street, 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.

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Photo

The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol were regulars at Barbetta in the ’70s. More recently, the Clintons and Lin-Manuel Miranda have stopped by. Credit Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

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 townhouse exterior to its brocade chairs and swag curtains, Barbetta is a throwback to the days of the fancy restaurant.

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