“I came to this country with the idea of staying a few months, but I’m still here,” Maccioni says with a chuckle.
For nearly four decades, Le Cirque has served as the clubhouse for New York City’s social elite. The midtown “circus” has attracted presidents, popes, moguls and movie stars and is still packed to the brim every night. They come for the food, the old-fashioned elegance and for the restaurant’s ringmaster, Sirio Maccioni. Six nights a week, the 78-year-old legend stands behind the podium of his $18 million mahogany eatery lined with framed photos of Le Cirque regulars: Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Jackie Onassis, Barbara Walters, Al Pacino, Joan Rivers, Martha Stewart and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
With restaurants in Las Vegas, New York City, the Dominican Republic, New Delhi and India, few restaurateurs can claim even a fraction of Maccioni’s success. But to pinpoint just one reason for his sustainable rise would be impossible. It’s his undying entrepreneurial spirit, his infectious charm and his refusal to sit out and miss the show.
“There’s no secret, just do,” says Maccioni, who has yet to shed his Old World Italian ways or his endearing fractured English. Dressed in a charcoal pinstripe suit, a pastel blue shirt and a navy patterned tie, the famed restaurateur looks as if he had been born into high society. But looks can be deceiving, especially in a city like New York. Born in the tiny Tuscan town of Montecatini Terme in 1932, Maccioni was discouraged from ever entering the restaurant business. “[My father] swore that I was never, ever to go into restaurants or hotels, unless it was with a beautiful woman and I was staying there as a guest,” he writes in his 2004 autobiography Sirio: The Story of My Life and Le Cirque. After losing his mother to pneumonia at the age of six, and his father to a town bombing at the age of 12, Maccioni was left to provide for his aging grandmother and younger sister. Going against his father’s wishes, he began to work as a trainee at Croce di Malta wearing a white shirt hand-sewed from his mother’s linen and a pair of shoes stolen from his father’s closet and hand-painted black.
Scrubbing dishes and peeling potatoes gave way to training programs and apprenticeships in neighboring European countries. By his early 20’s, Maccioni had held a variety of positions at hotels and restaurants in Italy, France and Germany, including the Grand Hotel & La Pace in Montecatini, the Plaza Athenee in Paris and the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg. In 1956, he signed on to work for a cruise ship bound for the Big Apple. Just two years later, he was running the front of the house for the Colony restaurant, fielding requests from Sinatra, Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Leland Hayward and Truman Capote.
“I came to this country with the idea of staying a few months, but I’m still here,” Maccioni says with a chuckle. When the Colony closed in 1971, he had secured the contacts and experience needed to open his own establishment. Determined to launch a restaurant where the city’s movers and shakers could enjoy great food in a classic setting, Maccioni opened Le Cirque in the Mayfair hotel in 1974. “In the past, getting a reservation here was one of the most difficult things to do in New York,” he says with understated confidence. “Sometimes I ask myself if it was worth it… to spend a lifetime in order to become what I’ve become. But I don’t even think I had the choice in that.”
The eatery moved to the New York Palace Hotel in 1997, under the name of Le Cirque 2000, where it remained until 2004. In May 2006, Maccioni re-opened Le Cirque in its current home at One Beacon Court. Despite the parade of celebrity regulars that stop by on any given night, many that he’s known for decades, Maccioni always refers to his guests as “clients.” “They’re not my friends,” he explains matter-of-factly. “They can say that they’re my friends, but it would be presumptuous for me to say it. It’s for self-preservation. If you are friends with everybody, then if they come in one time and have to wait five minutes, they don’t remember that they are friends anymore.”
Today, Maccioni runs his empire with the help of his wife of 46 years, Egidiana, and their three sons, Mario, Marco, and Mauro. “It’s too bad for them,” he jokes. “They get along well and they’re good at what they do.” With his children to handle the day-to-day responsibilities, one would think that Maccioni would be eager to step down and enjoy his retirement, but it’s almost as if hard work is all he knows. “I really hate to get old,” he admits, a wave of sadness spreading across his face. “I don’t talk about it much. And sometimes at night I wake up and I have nightmares that I know how old I am.”
Acutely aware of his mortality, Maccioni spends his one day-off at home with his wife, who conceptualized many of the dishes at Le Cirque, including the celebrated crème brûlée. “She cooks the best food in New York,” he boasts. “I like simple food, seasoned with just salt, pepper, oil and vinegar. Complicated food and complicated lives are never good.” Occasionally, the two step out of the kitchen and sneak off for a weekend away in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. “She comes from a family of gamblers. At one time they owned half the town where we come from,” he reveals. “And now, she likes to gamble, but if she loses twenty dollars, she cries.”
With the love of his life by his side and three sons to carry on his legacy, Maccioni should be on top of the world. “I try to be happy, but I’m never happy,” he says earnestly. “I don’t believe in happiness. I was happy yesterday, but today and tomorrow is a different story.”