Everyone has an opinion about Pino Luongo. To Tony Bourdain, he was the notorious Pino Noir, the shadowy kingpin of a restaurant empire. To Manhattanites, he was either the savior or the scourge of the city's dining scene. To the many fans of his cookbooks, he was the herald of Tuscan cuisine.
In Dirty Dishes, Luongo emerges to tell his side of the story. And it's quite a story: After an idyllic and well-fed childhood in Tuscany, Luongo came to New York as an actor, and, after quickly washing out, fell into the restaurant business. Within ten years, he had risen from a position as a dishwasher to build a string of the hottest restaurants in the city, including Le Madri, Coco Pazzo, Tuscan Square, and Centolire. For a decade, he was one of the undisputed kings of New York nightlife, building a reputation for brilliance, volatility, and charm - as well as a long list of hilarious and jaw-dropping "Pino stories." But after a flirtation with a corporate chain went sour, he cashiered his restaurants and returned to his first love, the kitchen.
Pino has had an incredible life, full of amazing twists and famous names, and he is a born storyteller, who provides an inside look at the New York restaurant world in all its Byzantine glory. In a brief interview with Panache, Pino discusses some highlights of this book:
What made you write this book?
It was a cathartic experience. It's an intimate look at the events that took place in my life as a restaurateur. The book speaks about the American dream that every immigrant can experience and appreciate, and it also speaks about the American nightmare. After dealing with corporate America, which today I view as one of the reasons for some failures in my business life, I came to the conclusion that the more I can stay true to my roots and who I really am — an entrepreneur who loves food and the hospitality business — the more successful I will be.
Unfortunately the restaurant business, especially from the 90s on, experienced a major metamorphosis as a result of the many big box restaurants which are controlled by big money. I don't think they really reflect the personal touches that consumers expect from a great restaurateur.
After 30 years I came full circle and rediscovered the same values and reasons I was successful to begin with, which are to be sincere and true to my vision of running a professional restaurant, serving food that I can supervise and control in an authentic environment that is under my personal oversight, not in an abstract, corporate large box where everything is planned ahead of time. It is not really what I am good at.
Was it difficult to describe the challenges you experienced as a restaurateur in America?
Sometimes it was difficult for me to be so honest and sincere. It helped me a lot to have a friend and expert coauthor like Andrew Friedman, who went through hours and hours of taping and meetings. He was the one pushing me to get to the substance of the many things that happened to me.
Sometimes it was difficult to acknowledge my failures, and when I was able to face them and accept the mistakes that I made, it was a major bruise to my ego. To be honest, at one time my ego was a little bit out of proportion and when I landed, I did land on my feet again and discovered that I like who I am, I like what I do. We all make mistakes. I am moving on and am trying to do the best for the people that work for me and my family.
How would you summarize the book?
The book is basically a memoir — a reflection of my life as a restaurateur for 30 years — its ups and downs, and hopefully more ups to come than downs. It is also a reflection of what this country has come to appreciate today versus what it was 30 years ago, and how much the restaurant industry in New York has changed.
What are your plans for the future?
I have a food concept that I haven't experimented with yet and I definitely want to do it. Needless to say, I am keeping my eyes and ears open and am looking out for opportunities that I'm sure will surface as a result of this awful economic environment.