On the House is Eater's semi-regular column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, an epic and amazing tale from Jeffrey Tascarella, GM and Wine Director at Scarpetta.
For the past five years in New York City, everybody at any restaurant that takes themselves seriously at all has spent their days staring at those two terribly outdated pictures of Frank Bruni, and waiting.
Those two pictures are the only physical proof that the man actually exists and we know them all too well. There’s the chin-down, face-front “Blue Steel” shot and there’s the various shots from the PBS interview with the blue-grey background.
A little tip to those of you who have not met him and still have something to worry about over the next few months: he looks absolutely nothing like those pictures. Nothing. We were all completely wasting our time, and leading ourselves into a hysteria over any guy in his 30’s with brown side-parted hair.
Aside from those pictures, Bruni is the stuff of legend, somewhere between William Wallace and Jesus Christ. People in our business tell tall tales of him, of his predispositions and his aversions.
“He’ll always order a cosmo or a margarita, to test how you make a decent drink.”
“He’ll always be a four-top, let three go in first, then sneak in late.”
“He goes to the bathroom all the time.”
“Eric Ripert had to get up from Christmas Eve dinner with his family and come back to the city to cook for him.”
“Stephen Starr hired spotters on all corners of the street with walkie-talkies to alert if he was approaching.”
“He always gets a burgundy for like $70.”
This is every day.
My first gig in New York City was waiting tables at Fiamma. They had gotten three stars in the Times from William Grimes about a year before, and we were doing good food, good business, and all was right with the world. Hell, you didn’t even have to worry about these damn bloggers at this point.
Then, things began to shuffle around at the Times, and eventually Bruni landed. My General Manager at the time (a manic Italian guy) was convinced that Bruni was making Fiamma one of his first stops, and to let everyone know there was a new sheriff in town he was going to take one of our stars away, the bastard.
Every day at pre-shift for two years we discussed Bruni. We had the “two pictures” affixed to our order books. We would analyze his review every Wednesday- what pissed him off? What did he enjoy? How would he feel about this or that? I stared at the Blue Steel picture. His homoerotic gaze peered directly into my soul.
Every night, he was “spotted.” My GM would send out some extra this, or extra that. If you were a slightly effeminate, mid 30’s, professional looking man with brown hair, and you ate at Fiamma from 2004 – 2006, you got to feel, for a moment, what it’s like to be Bruni.
One evening, I was working the shitty lounge station, which consisted of the three bar tables upstairs, and quite possibly the worst table in the restaurant. It was late, and I got a walk-in of three men; nice enough, well-dressed. One of the guys was chatting me up about the menu a bit more than average. As I was describing the filling on the agnolotti, I realized. Dear God. Him. I finished answering their questions and snuck downstairs to inform the management.
“I’m fucking sure. It’s him,” I said.
“Porca troia!” my GM shrieked.
The restaurant practically shut down as we moved into battle positions. I went to take the order. He ordered the cheapest red by the glass. Then he ordered the tagliolini, a mixed seafood dish, but asked, “Can the chef make that with just some tomato sauce, you know, plain?” What the fuck? “Sure,” I said, and went downstairs to the anxious kitchen.
“What did he order?” Chef asked.
“Uh- he ordered just the tagliolini.”
“Just one course?”
“Yeah, and, he just wants pasta with tomato sauce.”
“What?! That’s not Frank Bruni! No way!”
The consensus reached was this: Yes, that was Frank Bruni. Yes, he was hungry for something simple. Yes, this probably was not going to be a part of any sort of a review. Perhaps, the man just needed some sustenance for the evening.
But, no matter: for the next few weeks we were on high alert. We kept great tables open at prime times for the possibility that he may grace us again. I wondered, does he realize what he does to us? He probably doesn’t. He never came back when I was there, and it would be a year before I saw him again.
I had taken a job at Mercer Kitchen as a floor manager and maitre’d. I had only done wine and beverage stuff, and figured I was missing the maitre’d skillset in my toolbox. What better place to learn? 500 covers a day, most of them celebrities. It was a fun time, though, admittedly, the food was lacking.
The higher-ups in the Jean Georges universe were content, and rightfully so. They had gotten 2 stars from Ruth Reichl in 1998, a long time ago, business was consistently good, spitting our casual fare to some of the most successful and beautiful people in the world.
This was not a place where we discussed Bruni. At all.
I had been working at Mercer for a little while, and was about to head off to my yearly vacation out in Montauk. I was relaxing in the managers’ office with my General Manager, talking about things to do while I was away and what would be on my plate when I returned. We were just humming along.
Phone rang, a transfer from upstairs. “New York Times, on the phone,” the hostess said. “The Times?” my GM reiterated. We shot a quick, panicked glance at each other. “Hello, this is the New York Times, we would like to schedule a photographer to come in for a food piece that will be running next week.”
What. The. Fuck. The biggest fear in the entire industry. Bruni had come. Bruni had gone and we had no idea. The mind begins to race. Was he here that night we had those 20 screaming girls at the communal table? Or the night that we were on that 45 minute wait? Or was it the night that we 86’d half the menu? Or the one where the kitchen was taking an hour to pump out entrees and I spent the evening listening to complaints and comping desserts? Dear God.
The entire company went into crisis mode. Corporate management and JG himself appeared every evening, waiting, hoping- he may come back one last time. Maybe one last time and we could turn around whatever horrible notions have already been instilled in his head.
Thankfully, I had my vacation. Also, at the time, I had a very promising job opportunity that I was debating about taking. I had been planning spending a few days at the beach with some friends and mulling it over. Now, I would be on the beach on the fateful Wednesday morning when the mysterious review came out.
I drove to the little general store in Montauk on Wednesday morning and picked up The Times, and frantically got to the food section. There it was- a weird double review alongside Vong. I scanned quickly. Phrases jumped out: “Distracted service.” “Saltiest thing I’ve ever tasted.” The big bomb: “This is the SoHo version of Applebee’s”. Ouch!
Then the bottom: Zero! Zero Stars!
He got us and got us good. I sat on the beach and felt like a failure. It was devastating, and I wasn’t the owner, I didn’t even open the place! The scarlet letter of restaurant reviews, on my resume. Shit.
I decided to take the new job, and bail on the guys at Mercer. Strangely enough, when I returned, I thought the whole kitchen staff would be gone and there would be a pink slip in my mailbox. Not the case: they looked at it as an opportunity to tune the place up, but I was dejected.
I suppose, they were right. It’s still busy as hell at Mercer Kitchen. Bruni, it seems, is not all-powerful.
I had recently opened Scarpetta with Scott Conant, and Bruni had come in two or three times, pretty much right away. This was a completely different game for me: my first New York City opening, and now I was the General Manager.
Strangely, with so much more on my shoulders, this was the least fearful and hectic Bruni situation I’d been in. We were proud of our food, our service, and our restaurant. If he liked it, that would be great. We just figured we’d do what we do and get an honest review. We imagined he'd be coming by once or twice more.
The servers were terrified. One girl, after taking his order, approached me, shaking. “He has black eyes?all pupil?it was horrifying.” This is not necessarily true.
What I can tell you about him is this: He knows his shit. He knows wine and he knows service and he knows what he likes. Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. When I approached him about a wine order, the first time he came in, I said, “What type of wine are you looking for today?”
His response: “I’m looking for something white, around $60, no oak, maybe with some slightly oxidative notes, but not as intense as a Gravner, and something that will pair with a full range of the appetizers quite well?.” Intense. (I gave him the Zyme “Black to White” for those who care.)
Anyhoo, I hadn’t taken a real day off in over a month. I wanted to- had to be there when he came in. Even if I was away from the restaurant, salvaging what remains of a relationship during a high-profile opening, I stayed in my full suit and tie, and usually close nearby.
One night, I got ballsy, and took the lady to dinner at WD-50. As entrees were about to hit the table, I got the call: “He’s here.” The staff at WD were sympathetic and wished me luck and congratulations as I rushed back uptown. I caught him for desserts.
One Saturday night in July, I was standing by the front door of the restaurant, taking a moment, enjoying the summer when a cab pulls up.
Out pops the man. I can’t describe the feeling when you actually spot him, still after a bunch of times. It’s somewhere in-between discovering that water-tentacle thing from The Abyss and a celebrity at the “Hall & Oates” level. I work with some older managers who still get nauseous when Ruth comes in—I imagine the feeling never goes away.
I don't know what I was thinking, but we make eye contact and I nervously wave to him like a little schoolgirl.
Like, "Hi Frankie! Hey! Over here!" He looks back, puzzled, and scampers away, a startled deer. My colleague approaches from behind: "What the fuck did you do? You scared Bruni away? You waved at him??”
Then we start imagining horrible things: We've ruined it! The game is up! No review will come out! Ever! We split into search parties and combed the neighborhood looking for him. He never came back that evening.
My balls were busted for quite some time. When he came in the final time, he went to check his bag and I said, "I don't need to give you a check ticket, do I?" The Brunster responded: "No, I guess you don't." The game was up.
He left that last night and thanked us all. He told us he truly enjoyed it. Not bad.
It was coming up to summer again, so I booked my yearly trip to Montauk, to sit on the same beach where I read the Zero Star review a few years back. Of course, as I’m about to go away, we get the call. “Hello, this is the New York Times, we would like to schedule a photographer to come in for a food piece that will be running next week.” Once again, the review would be coming out the Wednesday morning I was away.
I sat in my beach house the Tuesday evening prior, while my friends partied outside. I had found a little corner where I had good internet service, and continually pushed “re-load” on the Times website, waiting, watching. The review finally came up. I stood up, and my girlfriend and friends asked expectantly, “Well?”
We cracked some champagne. I called my friends back at the restaurant and we congratulated each other. I wished I could have been there with them, but it was nice to be at that same beach again.
Our time with Bruni is over. I look forward to meeting him in a different arena in the future. Again, I wonder if he knows the influence and the affect he has. I’d like to ask him that. Does he know that the waiter that took care of him at Ago was probably suicidal for a bit? That he has the power to incite heart attacks, panic attacks, and anxiety? That he can drive close friends and business partners to yelling, screaming enemies? That he leads to people losing their jobs or their businesses? I suspect he does. I hope the next guy does too.
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