Pino Luongo, a celebrity chef who in the 1980s and 1990s helped popularize Tuscan food with more than a dozen restaurants in the U.S., said he plans to shutter Centolire on New York’s Madison Avenue, his last property.
“At the end of the day, the rent is too high,” Luongo said. Centolire’s monthly rent, utilities and taxes averaged $41,000 since October 2011, according to records in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.
Luongo spoke briefly at Morso, an East Side restaurant that he helped create last year and doesn’t own. He declined to answer other questions.
“It’s a sad situation and I just want to move on,” he said.
On May 14, his holding company filed for Chapter 11 court protection -- without the aid of a lawyer -- to prevent eviction and an auction of Centolire’s contents. In a filing last week, Luongo said he couldn’t raise financing to save the restaurant or afford a bankruptcy law firm.
Luongo asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber to dismiss the case so he can sell Centolire’s assets and close it this month.
Anthony Bourdain, a chef and television personality, in his 2000 book, “Kitchen Confidential,” called Luongo “one of the most controversial figures in the business, a man envied, feared, despised, emulated and admired by many who have worked for and with him.” Bourdain through an assistant declined to comment.
A May 14 auction at Centolire was scheduled by Corsair Special Situations Fund LP, a New York investment firm that’s owed money by ABC Dining, Luongo’s holding company, according to court papers. The sale was to include a glass, hydraulic elevator that ascends to a second-floor dining room and cost $300,000, according to an ad placed in the New York Times. Corsair declined to comment.
Luongo arrived in New York from Rome in 1980, as a 27-year-old actor who spoke no English. His first job was as a busboy at Da Silvano in Greenwich Village, where Robert De Niro, the actor and now restaurateur, and director Michael Cimino were customers.
Luongo’s empire would include Il Cantinori, which he opened in 1983; Sapore di Mare, which he started in the Hamptons at age 34; and Le Madri in Chelsea, and the Tuscan Square retail emporium at Rockefeller Center. He later helped take over the Texas-based Sfuzzi restaurant chain.
“Slowly but surely, I had become a junkie, but it was a socially acceptable, even socially celebrated type of junkie,” Luongo wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Dirty Dishes: A Restaurateur’s story of Passion, Pain and Pasta.” “In addition to the money, I was addicted to business deals, to expansion, and perhaps even to codependent relationships and drama.”
Luongo opened Centolire in early 2001, months before a bankruptcy filing of his previous holding company, Toscorp. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “had a profound impact on Toscorp as well as the New York economy as a whole,” according to a December 2011 lawsuit that Luongo’s ABC Dining filed against Corsair in New York state Supreme Court in Manhattan.
After the Toscorp bankruptcy, three of his restaurants were spun off to operate as individual businesses, according to ABC Dining’s complaint. Two later closed. Corsair acquired the debt of the three restaurants and demanded that the entity now called ABC Dining guarantee it, according to ABC’s complaint.
In 2008, ABC told Corsair it couldn’t make payments. After a forbearance agreement, ABC suspended payments for two years. During recent negotiations, Corsair’s lawyer contacted ABC’s credit card processors in December 2011 and as a creditor directed that payments to ABC stop, ABC’s complaint said.
“Corsair timed its action to coincide with the holiday season so as to inflict the most significant damage to ABC’s business,” according to ABC’s complaint.
ABC owes its landlord more than $300,000 in back rent and other charges, the landlord, 1161 LLC, said in a bankruptcy court filing. ABC also owes Mandato Produce Corp. $40,735, according to a lawsuit Mandato filed in January in New York state Supreme Court.
Adversity hasn’t blunted Luongo. In a video interview with food writer Josh Ozersky last year, Luongo called De Niro’s Locanda Verde “the worst Italian food I ever had in New York” and Del Posto his least favorite of Mario Batali’s restaurants, adding that Batali’s Eataly “for me has big question marks.”
In “Dirty Dishes,” he said he came to realize he preferred the kitchen to the boardroom.
“I consider myself a very lucky man to finally comprehend that it’s not the business deals or the money that defines me, it’s cooking,” he wrote.
The bankruptcy case is ABC Dining Ltd., 12-bk-12106, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).