Storied Restaurateur Goes Back To The Kitchen

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:06

Pino Luongo of Il Cantinori fame has settled into a neighborhood Italian spot on the U.E.S.

Upper East Side Pino Luongo has found his happy place.

And so, it seems, have many residents of Sutton Place.

The 61-year-old restaurateur, who at one point owned 16 Italian eateries across the country, including Le Madri in Chelsea and Coco Pazzo on the Upper East Side, now operates just one.

Morso, which opened in 2011, is tucked in a mostly residential neighborhood in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge. It draws loyal and mostly local diners, and puts Luongo back where he feels he belongs: in the kitchen.

"I feel this is my playground," said Luongo on a recent evening, before the dinner rush. "This is where I make things happen."

Tuscan-born Luongo opened famed East Village restaurant Il Cantinori in 1983, along with his partners, Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni, and is credited with popularizing regional Italian cuisine in New York City (he sold his ownership of Il Cantinori in 1989, when he opened Le Madri). It wasn't uncommon, Luongo said, to find Andy Warhol, Jean Michel-Basquiat, or Keith Richards at one of his tables.

Morso caters to a neighborhood crowd of repeat diners, whose input Luongo values. Many dishes on the menu can be ordered in small or full portions, a concept that restaurant manager Ezma Samuel said came from diners who like to eat light. Samuel estimates that, on a given night, Morso draws around 20 to 30 regulars.

One of those loyalists is Sutton Place resident Harriet Dorfman, who visits at least three times a week. She started frequenting Morso with her husband, journalist Dan Dorfman, who passed away in 2012. The last meal they shared was at Morso, and the first bouquet of flowers she received after his death was from Luongo.

"It goes beyond his food and the ambiance," Dorfman said. "It's the heart and soul of people caring about you."

Grace Balducci Doria, founder of Grace's Marketplace on the Upper East Side and Long Island, said most of her business comes from regular clientele and that loyal customers keep businesses thriving.

"You want customers that come in every day or four times a week," she said. "You need your steady customers, and those are the ones that you want to please."

Neighborhood resident Carole Gratale comes back to Morso for food that is always "a notch above" other restaurants in the city, but also because of the restaurant's warm atmosphere.

"He always comes over and sometimes he sends dessert," said Gratale. "He's quite charming."

Not everyone finds Luongo as charming as his current clientele. He said he's "damaged goods" to food critics, who he's gotten in verbal scrapes with in the past. (He once sought legal action against food writer Alan Richman for what Luongo told New York Magazine was a "very damaging" review of Coco Pazzo). He's seen business relationships sour, including that with the Pressman family, who owned luxury department store Barney's, and whose many restaurant partnerships with Luongo deteriorated in the mid-nineties amidst the Pressman's bankruptcy protection filings.

But guests in the Morso dining room don't seem concerned with Luongo's past disputes. The restaurant, which seats around 120 people between its dining room and outdoor terrace, fills up around 7:00 p.m., and Luongo works the room. He stops at tables to shake hands and askabout the food, and waves to customers from across the restaurant.

"A restaurant is like theater," said Luongo. "The food that I cook and the service that we provide makes a food dining experience like a theatrical experience, in a sense, and I think people acknowledge that kind of experience by supporting you. They keep coming day after day, week after week and month after month."