Welcome to Lifers, a new Eater series focusing on the men and women that have spent most of their professional lives behind the bar. Up now: Cocktail writer extraordinaire Robert Simonson chats with Carlo Marioni, of Pietro's.
As today's careerist mixologists hop from new bar to new bar, fattening their resume on their way to a book deal or brand ambassadorship or consultancy practice, it's hard to keep track of where your favorite drink-mixers are plying their trade. That was not the case in the past. A New York bartender found a lucrative perch and, if he pleased the management and the clientele, would remain there for decades, serving the same regulars the same drinks week in and week out. Such steady figures are harder and harder to find today. Joseph Dacchille, barkeep at the Pierre Hotel for 31 years, retired where the hotel closed for renovations in 2007. Tommy Rowles, who tended bar at Bemelmans for 53 years (he never had another job), retired last year.
Still clocking in, for the time being, is Carlo Marioni, bartender at Pietro's, the old-school Italian restaurant on W. 43rd. He began tending bar at Mike Manuche's, a legendary steak house on W. 52nd Street frequented by sports figures, and stayed until it closed 1982. From there, he went to two survivors of what used to be known as "Steak Row": The Palm and Pietro's. Nearly 50 years of bartending, and only three jobs.
How long have you been a bartender?
At Pietro's, since 2003. Before that I was at The Palm, and then Mike Manuche's on the west side. It was a sports place. It was a steakhouse, but a lot of sports celebrities went there. I was there from 1965 to 1982. They closed. A life insurance company bought the building, paid them off, and everybody left. They bought the whole block and built the corporate headquarters there. Then I went to The Palm, then here.
How did you become a bartender?
I don't know, I just started. I went to a place where they wanted a waiter, I started there, and went to bartending from there.
Did you like bartending better?
Is it better money?
Money depends where you are. It depends on the establishment. Manuche's was better than any place I've worked. Howard Cosell, Pat Summerall, Alex Webster, Muhammad Ali. All the sports celebrities, you name them, they were there. They were great tippers. Bobby Orr, all the Giants, the Maras, there were all there.
What did they like to drink?
Mostly it was Scotch then. Today it's vodka. Then it was Scotch. Martinis, Manhattans; after that Rusty Nails, Stingers, brandies, Black Russians, all the heavy stuff.
Did they drink a lot?
They drink pretty good! Billy Graham—the boxer, not the crusader—his famous words when somebody asked him "When you hit somebody, what happens?" He says, "When I hit them and they didn't go down, they did funny things standing up."
Did anyone drink anything unusual?
No, not really. They always drank the same thing. I didn't have to ask them. When they came in, I made it without asking. If they wanted something different, something was wrong. They were sick or something.
The Martinis back then, they were mostly gin or vodka?
And they were dry, right?
Dry. I used to say, "This is so dry you could blow the dust off it." Another trick I had, people wanted their Martinis shaken back then. I would pretend to be shaking a Martini and then pour nothing into the glass and ask, "Is that dry enough for you?"
Were the tastes of the clientele at The Palm different?
Yeah. Different crowd. The old crowd was the best. Today's crowd is not like it used to be. It's altogether different. Then, it was cigarettes at the bar and the lighter. Today, it's the computer at the bar and phones. The people weren't as particular as they are today. If it's not in a stemmed glass, etc., they won't drink it.
What do people order at Pietro's?
We have a lot of old-timers. We have some of the younger crowd; they're mostly into vodka. Vodka Martinis, Cosmopolitans, Lemon Drop Martinis, all that stuff. It's a big change from then to now. We sell mostly vodka and white wine. And the fruity vodkas, the pear and the orange.
Do you care for those flavored vodkas?
No. That's not a drink. That's soda pop.
Are there drinks you're particularly known for making well?
I make good Manhattans, I make Martinis.
How do you make your Martini?
I just make it without vermouth. Nice and cold.
You ever thought of retiring?
Actually, I was going to retire, but something happened and I have to stick around a while to help out the owner. I was planning to retire in September. I'll be 70 years old. I think I'm entitled.
Back in the '60s the '70s, when you weren't working, were there certain bars you liked to go to?
I was really never much of a drinker. When I go home, I'll have a beer. I never drink on the job. It's like working in a fruit store. You don't eat the fruit, because it's right there.
Are you from New York?
I was born in Italy, but I came here in 1954. If Manuche's was still open, I would probably still be there. He just passed away. He was 91. His kids came in and we talked. His son, Mike Jr., was a fighter pilot. He was in Iraq. Now he's working for Jet Blue. His wife used to be Martha Wright. I don't know if you go back that far. She was in South Pacific, The Sound of Music. She was an actress and a singer. She also used to sing the national anthem at every Giants game.
So you must have gotten some show folk in Manuche's, too, then.
Yeah, we got a lot of them, too. But mostly it was sports. We had a TV at the bar. Then they put in a big projection screen to show the games. It was a big circular bar.
Circular? Sort of like what they had at Toots Shor?
Yeah. Him, too. Toots Shor came in. He was a mean guy! Mean. He used to come in with a stick, his walking cane. He'd tap it on the bar. I said, "You keep doing that, I'm going to chew it up." Yeah, he was a tough old guy. Toots Shor's was a sports place, too.
Pietro's was once on Steak Row, on W. 45th near Lexington.
Yeah, you had Danny's Hideway, Pietro's, The Press Box, The Pen and Pencil. There was a lot of steakhouses there. And you had a few Irish pubs, like John Barleycorn. Now they put a hotel there.
It sounds like you've been to all the places I wish I could have gone to.
Yeah. But in those days it just happened. It wasn't as if you were looking for anything. You just walked into some place and things were happening. When I started, there were no such thing as resumes, as far as being a bartender. You'd say, "I worked here. I have a friend of mine who works here." And that's how it was, all along. Nowadays, everyone writes a resume and they lie like hell.
— Robert Simonson