23 May 2010

Gino, The Man in Full

Upper East Side standby, Gino, which will close for good on May 29, was named after its founder Gino A. Circiello, who died in 2001. Here is the New York Times obituary that ran on Dec. 5 of that year:

Gino A. Circiello, a restaurateur who shunned credit cards, reservations and advertising but built a Manhattan institution on the strength of homey Italian cooking and 314 exuberantly leaping zebras on tomato-red wallpaper, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 89.
Gino, his restaurant at 780 Lexington Avenue, nearly across from Bloomingdale's, epitomized the New York of the time when men still wore hats and a plate of spaghetti went for 95 cents. It was where Ed Sullivan ordered the same chicken dish every day and then spread out his papers on a table to work through the afternoon. Each Mother's Day, Frank Sinatra brought a dozen people to the big table in the back. Manicurists, opera stars and the odd mobster added spice to the sauce.
Mr. Circiello, with his hair slicked back like George Raft's and an elegant suit draped over his slender frame, stood at the front, using his rasping voice to greet everyone like a treasured relative.
''He belonged to a world that doesn't exist anymore,'' his wife, Nini, said.
Gay Talese, the writer, who has been a regular customer since 1955, called Gino a time capsule.
The Zagat Survey for 2002 said the restaurant was ''frozen in the 40's,'' but had ''the best tomato sauce in town.''
It still has an old-fashioned phone booth with a folding door; when it was removed after a fire in 1973, customers demanded its return. In place of credit cards, the management still runs a tab for regulars and mails a bill at the end of the month. The flowers, all artificial, are changed as often as three times a year, pretty much with the seasons.
Clearly, less than flattering reviews of the cuisine have been less than lethal. The reason, says Mario Laviano, one of three employees who bought the restaurant from Mr. Circiello in 1985, is simple: ''It's not a restaurant, it's like a club.''
For example, in 1974, John Canaday began a review of Gino in The New York Times with a long paragraph arguing that food is secondary to experience in New York restaurants. That said, he wrote, ''If I could pick a single one as the quintessential New York restaurant, it would have to be Gino's.'' (He said everyone called it Gino's.)
The zebras are a huge part of the attraction. Mr. Circiello was a hunter without the means to pay for an African safari, but he reasoned that he could at least afford zebras on his wallpaper. So he commissioned a friend to design wallpaper depicting leaping zebras pursued by arrows.
''This makes no sense that I can figure out,'' Mr. Canaday wrote.
In truth, it made less sense than he might have realized. The designer's initial picture of two zebras omitted a stripe near the tail of one of the two creatures. Before Mr. Circiello noticed this, half of the 314 zebras were missing a stripe. But the paper had been glued to the wall.
None of the customers in the first-night crowd noticed, nor did the crowds that followed in the next few weeks. Or at least they said nothing to him or his staff. He decided to keep the paper as it was.
Twice in the last 50 years, the wallpaper had to be replaced. Each time Mr. Circiello decided to keep the nonuniform zebras; people might miss them.
Gino Augusto Circiello was born in Buenos Aires on Jan. 20, 1912. His Italian father worked as a chef in a hotel there. While the family was on a trip to their home on the island of Capri, World War I started, and they could not return.
The young Gino developed a working knowledge of Italian, French, German and English. He apprenticed as a waiter in luxury hotels in Venice and elsewhere in southern Europe. At 17, he sailed for New York, arriving in October 1929 just as the stock market collapsed.
Throughout the Depression, he worked as a busboy, a room waiter and an assistant bartender in New York, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Palm Beach. While working as a bartender at the Waldorf-Astoria, he began to dream of opening a restaurant on Lexington Avenue.
Two of his friends, Guy Avventuriero and Emilio Torre, liked the idea, and the three used their joint savings to open the restaurant. The rent was $400 a month (it is now $21,000), and Mr. Circiello bought a mahogany bar secondhand on the Bowery. It is still there. So are the 27 original wood-topped tables.
Mr. Circiello's partners retired in 1980. He stayed on till 1985, when he sold the restaurant to the three current partners. In addition to his wife, Mr. Circiello is survived by a brother, Augusto, of Manhattan; and two sisters, Yolanda Gentile of Capri and Raffaella Musumeci of Catania, Sicily.
When he returned to the restaurant after his retirement, diners sometimes erupted in spontaneous applause. At home, one of his rugs was a zebra skin from an animal he had shot himself.

1 comment:

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Thanks for reprinting Gino's obit. When I was a kid, maybe 16 years old, I saw Ed Sullivan on the street walking with a newspaper under his rain coat. Now I finally learned where he was coming from or heading to: favorite chicken dish... I love it! 'Really big shew.'


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