March 2, 2015 | BITE: My Journal
Circo: Where the Boys Are Once in a While (CLOSED)
Worth waiting for: Marvelous mafaldine noodles with wild mushroom and Muscovy duck ragu
Worth waiting for: Marvelous mafaldine noodles with wild mushroom and Muscovy duck ragu.

          A friend invited me to “Cabaret” at Studio 54 Thursday. I looked up nearby dinner options, found nothing compelling, everything really minor, except for Circo, a long block east. I can’t recall the last time I had dinner there, but when friends book at the New York City Center, I send them to Circo for supper before or after. The crew is primed to get ticket-holders in and out in time. Dinner can be as simple as Mama Egidiana Maccioni’s thirty vegetable Tuscan soup and a sorbetto, or a cracker thin pizza and salad, followed by an espresso.

Arugula and endive are tossed with apple thins, then bacon and gorgonzola bring it home.

          I must confess that I have a sentimental attachment to the Maccionis from the dawn of Le Cirque. I first started reviewing restaurants in 1968 when Sirio was still indulging the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Frank Sinatra at The Colony, then on life-support. (Click here to read my “Colony Waxworks.”) When Maccioni and the Colony chef Jean Vergnes opened Le Cirque on 65th Street a few years later, everything about its style left me cold: the fussy dressmaker look, the cutesy monkeys frolicking on the walls. In a March 1975 rating of the town’s best French restaurants, I ranked it thirteenth, noting its ambition, and how it missed the mark.

That famous summer in Springs, I became closer to Craig Claiborne, here with Pierre Franey.

          Pierre Franey’s daughter was to be married in Craig Claiborne’s Hamptons garden a year later. That summer, I was a writer-in-residence a few doors down the bay beach working on my novel “Blue Skies, No Candy.” I found myself fluting lemons alongside a muster of Manhattan’s celebrated French chefs and flirting with Le Cirque’s new chef de cuisine, Jean Louis Todeschini. He challenged me to return to the restaurant and taste his cooking. Soon I knew more about Le Cirque than I should. That led to “I Love Le Cirque, But Can I Be Trusted?” (Click here to read). Despite my determination to avoid friendship with restaurateurs, I never could resist the temptations of Maccioni, the mesmerizing ringmaster who kissed the air above my knuckles and seated me among the society blondes in the front row. I was thrilled to have a table between Pat Buckley and Barbara Walters. I ordered one dessert and giggled helplessly when six arrived.

I thought Sirio’s favorite designer, Adam Tihani, could have been more playful with the circus theme.

          Some years later, my guy and I found ourselves planted in Pietrasanta near the Tuscan seashore one summer. It was less than an hour from the summering Maccionis in Montecatini. We must come for dinner, he said. Yes, we must, I agreed. And early for the shopping. Yes, that too. That was the summer Sirio raged from afar over construction delays at Osteria del Circo – a humble trattoria for his wife and the three princelings -- while Egi prepared to tutor the chefs in the simple clarity of her cooking.

          Sunday was family night. With Le Cirque closed, Sirio could give the sons a night off and devote himself to hissing at the waiters and turning the tables. I remember a Sunday family gathering with Mario’s baby sitting on the cash register. (Read “Where the Boys Are” by clicking here.)

Chicken “al mattone,” pressed under a brick, comes with roasted potatoes.

          Of course, there are not many places where the intense scrum of early chic last forever. Now it is twenty years later. The place is almost empty when I arrive at 6. There are tight little tables for two but I am led to a VIP two-top in a corner banquette.  I notice that entrees are now $29 to $44 with a 30 oz. prime Creekstone Farms dry-aged T-bone Fiorentina for $43 pp. No surprise.

Pumpkin puree and chestnuts accompany raised waygu beef cheeks in a Chianti classic sauce.

          I would think braised beef cheeks are rich and fatty enough without being wagyu beef cheeks. Maybe using that premium cow justifies a $32 price tag. But there’s also a $38 Restaurant Week menu with five choices in each category (including those chubby cheeks) and a $19 menu for children 12 and under.

          I recall the first time I saw Adam Tihany’s $2.5 million rare wood circus, wishing it were more playful. The few furls of red and white tenting still fly high above. A sculptor’s metal monkeys dancing around the central column are not so brilliant anymore, now that the mechanism is broken. There are no Maccionis dancing attendance either, not that I expected to see them at this early bird hour.

We resisted fried zucchini, but the kitchen’s gift proved to be unusual; we couldn’t stop eating them.

          My friend and I decide to share a pizza, pasta and a salad, not exactly light pre-theater snacking but, after all, this is Circo. A waiter delivers a basket of bread and focaccia and pours a saucer of olive oil from the bottle on each table. He sets a bowl of fried zucchini alongside. I groan. “Did we order zucchini?” I ask. I remember we discussed zucchini and, with rarely exercised adult prudence, nixed it.

I hope the kitchen always divides a dish ordered to share as generously as they did our salad.

          “A gift from the kitchen,” the waiter says. Drat and double drat. The chips are puffed up and not greasy at all, in fact, instantly essential. Our fingers nearly collide in greediness as we eat our way to the puddle of oil at the bottom of the napkin bunting. Splendid insalata di rucola distracts a little, already divided in two, a generous portion, maybe especially abundant in my honor. Bacon adds lust to the toss of arugula, endive and thin slices of apple.

Egi’s pizzas are thin crusted. The “piccante” with chorizo and scattered jalapeño pleases us.

          Circo’s pizza still has the same thin, almost cracker-like crust -- Egi’s pizza. I remember how we sat in her kitchen with friends learning how to do it long before Circo was conceived. Our tomato-mozzarella-chorizo “Piccante” pie tonight is definitely picante, with long loops of jalapeno, seeds still attached, making them hotter. That’s okay. We’re both hotheads.

Mauro Maccioni, the tall one, is the youngest. He and brother Marco arrive with Mama.

          And what is this dish? Another gift. Grilled octopus from Mauro, just being gracious in Papa’s style, but I’m annoyed, not just because the creature is tough, but because we have already eaten way too much for a pre-curtain snack and pasta is still to come.

I know I already ran a photo of the duck ragu pasta, but it was really good with the sweetness of grapes.

          Worth waiting for is the mafaldine – ruffled flat noodles, almost sufficiently al dente – with an excellent duck ragu, served to us already divided, two portions exceeding one, of course.  More than I can finish. 

Marco is the middle son, last to marry and a proud father. For years he seemed married to his dog.

          And now I look up and there is Egi coming across the room, escorted by Mauro and Marco. I have not seen her for a while, since the cookbook celebration in the back room at Le Cirque I’m not sure how long ago. I hope you won’t think me over-full of myself, but after decades, I believe I am familiar with Maccioni ways. I am imagining the late arriving Bruno, a face from the first Le Cirque at 65th Street, who is senior here – calling Sirio and Egi to report my presence tonight and she summoning the princelings on their night off and insisting they escort her.

Sorbetto, sorbet, yes: the sane way to end an indulgent dinner. I like lemon, really tart.

          That’s why the waiter is setting out dessert flatware after I asked for an espresso and a check. Dessert arrives anyway, a small cake with raspberries, balancing a pastry square on its nose, and a merry-go-round of sorbetti in a drift of crushed ice. Too much after enough already.  But of course, a spoonful of lemon ice is always refreshing.

We asked for the check, but Egi Maccioni insisted we try her version of grandmother’s cake.

          “You must taste the torta de nonna,” Egi says. “We brought the chef to Montecatini to teach him how to make it.” Why am I not surprised? Of course they did. I can see the kitchen in Montecatini. I recall watching Egi, her sister-in-law, and Franca from Romano in Viareggio frying dozens of ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms for dinner while Sirio invites everyone from miles around who calls to join and the table grows, finally stretching far into the living room.

          I take a forkful of the delicate Tuscan Grandmother’s cake encrusted with pine nuts – tasting faintly of vanilla and lemon – flashing for a moment on that summer when both of us were voluptuous bare-legged blondes, young enough, thin enough, turning heads in Tuscany.

120 West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. 212 265 3636. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner Sunday and Monday 5 to 10:30 pm. Tuesday through Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 pm.


Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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