Le Cirque changed everything.
Las Vegas had been upgrading its food and beverage options for several years when Le Cirque opened in late 1998, but when it showed up, our gastronomic ground shook and the whole world felt the shudder.
Le Cirque was big time, New York sophistication planted right in our backyard. There was nothing “Vegas” about it. The Las Vegas of Dean, Frank, and Elvis impersonators suddenly seemed pretty cheesy next to opera stars and real royalty. Almost overnight, we went from Rat Pack to Savile Row.
The snappy suits on the staff announced this, as did the eye-popping Adam Tihany designs of “The Circus” and its sister, Osteria del Circo next door. The food and wine were otherworldly as well, right from the jump. There was no “ramping up” with these operations — everything ran like a fine-tuned watch from day one. Las Vegas has never been more urbane, before or since.
Overseeing it all was the Maccioni family. Mario, the eldest, moved here and was put in charge. Brothers Mauro and Marco flew out from New York to spell him occasionally, and every month or so, there would be patriarch Sirio sitting at a front table, looking all the world like a man who knew the roof was going to cave in any minute.
If there was ever an Olympic medal for worrying, Sirio Maccioni would’ve retired it. He was the Michael Phelps of worryworts. Nothing escaped him; everything was a potential disaster — from a waiter’s crooked necktie to a woman waiting too long to have her water re-filled.
Even though he was technically not “running” the Las Vegas restaurants, his eagle eye and sharp tongue had everyone on high alert. In between, he would bend your ear about his businesses going to hell in a hand-basket: unions, landlords, waiters, casino executives, customers, suppliers — Sirio was convinced there was a cabal of incompetence lurking right around the corner, ready to destroy the wonderful world(s) he had created, one misplaced napkin at a time.
In other words, he was the perfect restaurateur.
He didn’t come by it easily. His mother died when he was a little boy; his father by a Nazi bomb. Working in restaurants was in his blood, though, and he quickly moved from local ristorante to posh hotels to haute cuisine palaces, before making his way to New York while working on a cruise ship in the 1950s. Being tall and movie star handsome didn’t hurt. Neither did speaking five languages and being able to flirt with women in all of them. Saying Sirio Maccioni had a way with people is like saying a fish has a way with swimming.
Le Cirque and Sirio were already New York institutions by the time I discovered them in the late 1980s. By my second visit, five years later, their elitist reputations for “playing favorites” and “shunning unknowns” were well-established. But from where I sat, nothing could’ve been further from the truth. The allegations seemed like raw meat for the populists to me — dished up by writers who knew there was always a public appetite for casting high society as priggish swine — ignoring the magical food and service going on around them.
I went to his restaurants three times as a nobody before I went as a somebody, and the service never wavered. Long before the VIP treatment came, we always felt cosseted and cared for by the best service we had ever seen. Not for nothing was Le Cirque America’s most famous restaurant in the 1990s, and the care and feeding it gave all its customers, not just the famous ones, was the reason.
My second trip was the only anecdote needed to debunk this tedious cliche about regulars getting special treatment. It was getting late in the afternoon, well past 2:30 pm, when we stuck our heads in the front door of Le Cirque 2000, just to get a glimpse of the room. It was almost empty, and we knew it was too late to be seated. Sirio wasn’t there, but his number one lieutenant was, and he sensed, almost preternaturally, that we were hungry but too embarrassed to ask for a table. “If you are hungry, we are here for you,” were the words I remember to this day.
And with that, we were seated in at a beautiful table, and treated like kings. It would be two more years and another (anonymous, perfect) meal in New York before I would meet Sirio and start telling Las Vegans that our restaurants had taken a quantum leap in class.
Once I started writing about his Las Vegas offshoots, my stock rose considerably, and that meant there would invariably be more food than I, or any six people, could eat. Once he smuggled a culatello ham from Italy back to New York and made sure we had a platter of this ethereal pork. There were chocolate sculptures and jewelry boxes of sweets and free champagne aplenty, but the real bonus was having Sirio stop by to chat.
Being known by Sirio was a treat unto itself. He wasn’t only a world-class worrier, he was a spell-binding conversationalist who could spin yarns like sugar, always sprinkled with a little acido to keep things interesting. He once spent so much time at our table in New York in the summer of 2000, a well-heeled gent on his way out of the restaurant leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Who are you?”
“We are not in the food business,” Sirio always said, “we’re in the hospitality business.” Time and again his restaurants proved it. Making people feel good — making them feel like they were living life to its fullest — was his stock in trade. Night after night, decade after decade, he practiced sprezzatura: the Italian art of making the difficult look effortless. His was not the world of stuffy French pretension. He had suffered many a French chefs’ scorn as a young Italian, trying to make his way as a waiter. When his French restaurant became the talk of the town, it was because Italian warmth permeated the dining room as assuredly as truffles did the roast chicken.
Of course, Las Vegas will never have the celebrity social scene that first put Le Cirque on the map. High rollers and livin’ large conventioneers were never going to replace the King of Spain and Liz Taylor. But Sirio and his famiglia slipped into our culture as surely as they did a pair of Ferragamos. What Le Cirque did then, what Sirio Maccioni always did, was make his customers feel special, no matter who they were.
In the end, I guess we’re all nobodies — ashes to ashes and all that — but Le Cirque, whether in New York or in Las Vegas, helped you forget the truth that we are so fragile, so temporal, so much less the sum of our parts.
And now the parts that were Sirio are gone from this mortal vale, even if the style and the drive and the savoir faire that made him so special seem as dated as a society column. There will never be another Sirio Maccioni, not in our lifetimes. Because the forces that made him are no more. He was the last maestro. The end of a breed. The restaurateur as social arbiter. A purveyor of good taste, as well as of things that tasted good. By New York standards, Las Vegas only got a glimpse of Sirio Maccioni, but it was enough to make an impression on our entire hospitality industry.
Because he had a gift. Not just of gab. Not just being so suave, so successful, and such a devoted family man. Sirio also had the rarest of touches: something born of poverty, war, and strife. Something bred deep in his Tuscan soul, where food, family, community and kindness were all-important. Beneath that tall, twinkling, imperious, driven, difficult, elegant, moody/brooding charm there beat the heart of a true gentleman — someone who always made us nobodies feel like somebody.