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Tony May: Fine Dining Legend Award recipient

Talk with almost anyone who has worked with Tony May, and you will hear that person refer to him in the respectful tones of a bygone era.

"Mr. May," is how people invoke the restaurateur who has taught two generations of front-of-the-house staff about style and graciousness almost as a side job while transforming Italian cuisine in the United States.

"He really wanted to change the perception of Italian food," adds New York chef and restaurateur Scott Conant. "And for the most part he almost single-handedly did."

"Tony May has done more than any other American restaurateur to expose chefs, restaurateurs, journalists and the dining public to genuine Italian cooking," says author and critic Arthur Schwartz, who wrote, among other cookbooks, "Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania."

May himself was born Antonio Magliulo in Campania, a few miles south of Naples in the town of Torre del Greco on Dec. 6, 1937. He is the oldest of eight children and the son of a sea captain.

"We needed to help my father produce some additional income; my mother was busy raising kids, so I had to find a place to go to work," May recalls. So after three years at a private high school and additional schooling at a hotel school in Naples, he began his career in foodservice at the age of 17, as a commis on a cruise ship.

"As a matter of fact, this year is my 50th year in the business," May observes.

The next year he went to London to study English for a few months, and then he returned to the cruise ship where by the age of 20, he was maitre d'.

Italy, especially southern Italy, was impoverished at the time, and May didn't see much opportunity for himself. So in 1963, at the age of 25, he moved to New York and got a job as a waiter at the Colony restaurant, although in Europe he already had been a restaurant manager.

"I wanted to get to know the American style of service, of food and everything else," he explains.

He did that methodically, with six-week stints at a number of restaurants, and he saw that even as a 25-year-old he had a lot to teach.

"I was appalled at some of the ways the service was done, the quality of the food--particularly in Italian cuisine," he says. "Italian-Americans at that time prepared food I did not recognize, and they spoke a language I did not understand.

"The food was generally heavy and very sweet, compared to the lightness of the food I was accustomed to."

Italian-American food had evolved into something very different from its roots. And the only type of Italian food being offered at all was the basic stuff of trattorias--the Italian equivalent of diners. The alta cucina of the aristocracy was nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Italian cuisine was continuing to evolve in its homeland--portions were shrinking, the food was becoming lighter and olive oil was replacing other fats as the country became wealthier and more health-conscious.

But what was a young immigrant to do when seeing the disparity between the food of his old home and that of his new one?

"It was difficult for me to start arguing with people about what's right and what's wrong. Who the hell was going to listen to me?" May asks. "So I took my time and I said, 'When my time comes, I will do what I want to do, and I will try to do it correctly.' And this is what I did."

In February of 1964 young Magliulo asked for a job as a waiter at The Rainbow Room in New York City. To his disappointment he was hired as a captain. "I was making more money as a waiter," May explains. "At that time I had no money, and I had to make a living."

That was no matter. By 1965 he was maitre d', and in 1968 he became general manager and adopted what he calls his "stage name"--Tony May. "It was easier to remember, easy to pronounce," he explains.

Having accumulated a little power, May decided it was time to do something about the way the food of his native land was being presented in America. In 1971 he held his first "Italian Fortnight," a two-week festival for which, perhaps for the first time, chefs were flown in from Italy to cook authentic cuisine.

"A lot of the food we presented had never been seen before" in the United States, May says. "It was nothing they recognized as Italian."

Instead of heaping portions of spaghetti with tomato sauce and veal scaloppine, guests were introduced to carpaccio. And they were presented with a complexity of flavors that went far beyond what May calls "the standardized palate" that Americans had developed with regard to Italian food.

The festival was a hit, and May made a habit of bringing Italian chefs to cook in the United States--a practice he continues to this day.

"He's very much the ambassador of Italian food in America," says Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Los Angeles. "I can't think of anyone who deserves more to be acclaimed as a great restaurateur in this country, and he's definitely the best Italian restaurateur in the country."

Indeed, while May was introducing modern Italian fine dining to America, he also was showing his acumen as a restaurateur. He took over The Rainbow Room's lease in 1973, re-established dancing at the restaurant and tripled business overnight.

"I'd tried to get the prior leaseholder to put dancing in The Rainbow Room. She would never do it," recalls May with a mixture of mystification and mild outrage.

Longtime friend Georges Briguet, chef and owner of Le Perigord in New York City, recalls The Rainbow Room when May ran it. "When you walked into his restaurant that used to be at the top of Rockefeller Center, nobody in this city had that kind of class, that kind of affability with the people. He's the greatest one we've ever had in Manhattan."

While running the restaurant May also continued to try to educate Americans about Italian cuisine, and in 1979 he founded the Grupo di Ristoraturi Italiani with the mission of improving the image of Italian cuisine through education.

The group sends five or six culinary students as well as restaurateurs and members of the media to Italy each year.

Each year the group visits one of Italy's 20 regions--they'll be in Liguria this September--sampling new products and observing how the cuisine is evolving.

"In the restaurant business, just like in the medical profession, you never stop learning," May says. "Every day you develop new ideas; you always have to present something different and new to your customers. Otherwise you get stale."

May operated The Rainbow Room until 1986, when he opened his first Italian restaurant, Palio, in an effort to introduce Americans to alta cucina, or aristocratic cuisine.

Palio, named for the mural by artist Sandro Chia that dominated the restaurant, had fine crystal and white tablecloths. It was nothing like the casual restaurants of Little Italy with which most of his customers were familiar.

And they didn't quite know what to think of Palio.

"When they came to eat, a lot of them said, 'Well, it resembles French food,' "May says, "because it was served in an elegant environment, because it was presented correctly and because the portions were not very big. The American view of [an Italian restaurant] is still a trattoria. But we have an haute cuisine in Italy just like we have [the cuisine of] a trattoria. Why is it not accepted? Because we're Italian? That's baloney."

But it was enough of a success for May to up the ante two years later with San Domenico NY.

The original San Domenico, after which the New York incarnation is named, was in Imola, in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. May paid that restaurant a consulting fee and brought the entire crew--owner, chef, maitre d', etc.--to run the restaurant for a year. Then he hired his own chefs to maintain the restaurant's high standards.

"San Domenico has always been, I'd say, one of the most creative, original Italian restaurants in New York," says Tim Zagat, founder and owner of the Zagat Survey. It's not one of the city's highest-rated restaurants in the survey, however. "I think San Domenico deserves higher ratings," Zagat says. "But I think that's partly because Americans don't understand the food he's doing, which I think is exemplary and reflects the best of what's going on with Italian cooking."

A higher-rated New York Italian restaurant is L'Impero, whose chef-owner, Scott Conant, recently opened his second restaurant, Alto, named for the cuisine May started serving in 1986.

Conant worked in San Domenico's kitchen for four years, starting in 1990.

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