Tony and Marisa May keep authentic Italian cuisine in the family
The father-daughter team Tony and Marisa May, owners of Italian restaurant SD26, are rarely far from their dining room.
"The family is always in the house," said Marisa May. "The papa's in the house. The children are in the house."
Since SD26 opened on 26th Street just north of Madison Square Park in 2009 as the modern answer to Tony May's elegant San Domenico, a fine-dining mainstay on Central Park South for 20 years until it closed in 2008, both father and daughter remain fixtures in their vast, tri-level restaurant. On a recent evening, before dinner service began at the restaurant, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this week with five nights of cocktail parties, Mr. May stood at the sleek bar, watching soccer on a flat screen television, while Ms. May ate an early dinner, or a late lunch, depending on the perspective.
"So many people in the restaurant industry are so spread out thin," said Ms. May. "But this is our one baby that we actually put our whole life into."
Tony May arrived in New York from Naples, Italy in 1963, when, Mr. May said, Italian cuisine didn't exist in the city, aside from mountains of spaghetti and baked ziti in bright red sauce, served at tables cloaked in red-and-white checkered tablecloths. His career in fine dining began in 1968, when he started as the manager of the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center before taking over as owner, a post he held until 1986 when he opened his first restaurant, Palio in Midtown. The venerable San Domenico came two years later, a restaurant that was still earning high praise from the New York Times in 2003 for the work of its chef, Odette Fada, if not for the atmosphere of its dining room.
"San Domenico was fine in 1988," said Tony May, 75, as he sat at the head of the table in a red-walled, private dining nook at his restaurant and gently dinged a dinner knife against an empty water glass. "It is a different world. A different consumer, a different attitude, a different demand. At that time the consumer was looking for a dining experience, a dining experience of a different time. They wanted more seclusion, they wanted to get into a jacket and tie. It was an occasion, more formal. Today you are lucky if they don't come in shorts."
He remains devoted to bringing authentic Italian cuisine to the New York City dining circuit, something that was more revolutionary when he opened San Domenico than it is now, for which he humbly takes some credit. His daughter, as effervescent as a glass of Prosecco and a perfect complement to his quieter demeanor, offered more effusive praise for her father's early contributions to the city's restaurant culture. "My father built the most luxurious Italian restaurants here," she said once Mr. May left the table. The cuisine at San Domenico was an authentic reflection of what Italians ate when they dined out, she continued. "We had baby goat on the menu, rabbit. People were freaking out. Now you see it on every menu. We put olive oil on the table. We did the first olive oil ice cream. No one was doing this."
Mr. May's commitment to authenticity carries over into the menu at SD26, he said, in products sourced from Italy and in their signature dishes, like salty, cured anchovies and tuna served over sweet lardo toast, and the uovo in raviolo, a large ravioli filled with a bright orange egg yolk (and a popular carryover from the San Domenico days). Executive chef Matteo Bergamini, a native of Lake Garda in northern Italy who calls Mr. May "Coach T," took over when Fada, left in 2010.
"I think he knows pretty much everything," said Bergamini, whose first New York restaurant job was as sous chef at San Domenico. "How things evolve, and he's really focused on the Italian cuisine, which I'm very happy about."
Ms. May is her father's only child. Born in St. Vincent's Hospital and raised on East 64th Street, she's lived her whole life in the city, save her summers spent in Italy with her father's family, learning Italian hospitality. Charismatic with an easy smile and bright laugh, Ms. May seems a naturally inclined host; she first started working with her father at San Domenico when she was 16.
Both stress their abilities to separate their work from their personal relationship.
"You have to forget you're father and daughter," Mr. May said. "You just have a job to do and you get it done. Whether you are related or not the job you have to do will get done. And if it's not done then we have a problem."
Ms. May attributes their tight bond to their working relationship, but she also lost her mother when she was 18, when she was a freshman at New York University, which left her and her father to care for one another.
"I think me going into the business was also a way for my father to keep an eye on me," she said. "It was not easy for him as an Italian father, because Italian fathers are very macho, you know, and you have to play mother and father at the same time to me. But he did a great job."
Tony May avoids talk of the past, where he came from and his early career, and would much rather focus on his restaurant's five-year anniversary, no small milestone in a competitive and saturated restaurant city.
The SD26 "family" (Tony and Marisa May employ 90 staff members at the restaurant) continually looks to evolve. A revamped cocktail menu is on its way. The restaurant introduced a brunch menu earlier this year, though its future is uncertain. They hosted Super Bowl and World Cup viewing parties to appeal to nearby residents and businesses.
Meanwhile, Mr. May is trying to take more time off to travel, play golf and relax, but the transition is a bit unnatural for a man who spent half a century at the top of the city's food scene and worked tirelessly to stay there. He took this summer off for travel, but came home early.
"If I am away from the restaurant for more than a month I start getting nervous," said Mr. May, who often sends emails to his staff at 3 a.m. "I could not wait to get back."
Ms. May thinks that diners are attracted to the perpetual presence of the father-daughter duo at SD26, as they once were at San Domenico.
"What brings you back to a restaurant, with thousands and thousands of restaurants in New York?" Ms. May asked quietly. "It's us, I think."
SD26 is located at 19 East 26th St., between Madison and Fifth Avenues. It opens for lunch Monday-Friday, from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., for dinner nightly starting at 5:30 p.m. and for Saturday brunch from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.