Food Arts presents the October 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Laura Maioglio, trailblazing proprietor of Barbetta in New York City, for perpetuating the perfectionist standards of northern Italy's most glorious ristoranti.
The oldest restaurant in the city still owned by its founding family, Barbetta occupies two town houses in a complex of four on Restaurant Row in the Broadway Theatre District. Were Edith Wharton to have had a favorite Italian dining spot, this would be it. Barbetta, literally "little beard," was originally founded in 1906 in a rented building near the old Metropolitan Opera House by Sebastiano Maioglio, a newly arrived 26-year-old from Turin. Opera fans and artists soon flocked to the unassuming cheerful place named for his brother's goatee.
"He wasn't very business minded," Maioglio recalls. "He was very intellectual. He loved reading, music, and concerts. Nevertheless, he managed to make a lot of money for the times. In 1925, he paid $200,000 for these four houses and moved the restaurant."
Sebastiano Maioglio married quite late. He doted on Laura, his only child, and often took her to Italy. She attended Bryn Mawr, majored in art history, and studied in Florence. But she had absolutely no preparation for the restaurant business. Then her father became seriously ill and arranged to sell the business.
"I erupted, to everyone's amazement," Maioglio recalls. "I said, 'How could you dispose of something that's been in the family 55 years?' He was helpless before my determination. Essentially, I confiscated the restaurant! Sadly, he was unable to see the changes I made."
Tapping her art historian wand, Maioglio swiftly transformed Barbetta into an appropriate setting for Cinderella to tryst with the prince. Museum-grade antiques were gathered with a connoisseur's eye and open wallet. The perfect dining room chair was spotted in the Turin museum; 180 copies were ordered from a master craftsman. A cascading crystal chandelier was retrieved from Savoy palace. A lush and shady dining garden came next, set with lacy white wrought iron, a statue-rimmed fountain, oleander and gardenia bushes. Restorers and woodworkers brought upper-floor dining and reception rooms—including a wonderfully stocked "wine library"—back to beeswaxed life. Later, the kitchen would receive a million dollar, marble-sheathed makeover.
So stellar were its newly prominent cellars that in 1978 the Italian government awarded Barbetta first prize for the best Italian wine list of any restaurant in the United States. "When I took over in 1962, it was shocking what wasn't available," Maioglio says. "No one here had ever heard of Gattinara. Barbaresco was not on the market. We imported first of each."
For making Piedmontese cuisine known in this country, Maioglio has collected many prestigious citations, including the "Oscar del Successo" for brilliant entrepreneurship, bestowed at a torchlit gala at the Palazzo del Arsenale in 1989. Among other regional classic she intrduced here were bagna cauda (the warm anchovy/olive oil crudités dip), carne cruda (raw veal hand-chopped to a fluff to order), and panna cotta ("cooked cream" molds). Most auspicious of all was her importation of white truffles, not previously available in this country, often sniffed out by her jet-taking truffle hound Cleopatra.
Laura Maioglio's commitment to the gastronomic and decorative arts is evidenced in the number of societies and affiliations she actively supports, from the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani (an association of U.S.-based Italian restaurateurs, importers, and suppliers), on whose board she sits, to the Save Venice partisans. Her collection of rare antique American furniture soon will be shared with the public at the unveiling of two more reception rooms in the Barbetta complex.
As to her father's original restaurant concept, Maioglio, dressed as always in striking alta moda head to toe, comments dryly: "Today I'm certain that his formula would be very successful. Very inexpensive!" Meanwhile, thank you very much, daughter continues to do molto bene with luxurious lashings of white truffles, the finest vintages, and 16 desserts on two trolleys. Not to mention the occasional string quartet.