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The Irrepressible Restaurateur

Silvio de Mori Is Mercurial, Charming and a Dash Mysterious. How Else to Survive 14 Restaurants in 35 Years? By Martin Booe Photographs by Mark Edward Harris

June 01, 2003|Martin Booe | Martin Booe last wrote for the magazine about men who cook.

SCENE: De Mori Restaurant, Beverly Hills.

A cheery patio restaurant in the Rodeo Collection. Ivy curls around the trellis overhead and a fountain makes soothing sounds in the background. Owner Silvio de Mori, 55, with white-silver hair and eyes that crinkle up merrily, or wistfully, presides over the end of lunch with yours truly, MB, who is, for most intents and purposes, at this moment, an emotional wreck. The purpose is to interview Silvio about his long career in the restaurant business, the nature of restaurants, the beauty of food, but mostly the talk is about women. MB squirms in his seat because he knows he's not doing his job. Silvio rises to say goodbye to a customer, which typically involves a strong one-armed hug, followed by a hand clasped around the back of the neck and a forceful kiss on one cheek. He now returns to the table and finishes a story about making love to a Finnish girl many years ago in a tent collapsing in the middle of an ice storm. Silvio speaks in a thick but nonspecific European accent, a product of his back-and-forth between France and Italy.

SILVIO: Marr-tin. Take a little more wine, will you?

MB: No, Silvio. Please. Coffee. Just espresso.

SILVIO [to waiter]: Antonio, two espressos. And bring us just a little bit of grappa. This is how we drink espresso in France. It gives you a nice feeling. Wake you up a little but it relax you. You know, I knew when I first met you, Marr-tin, that you were like me. You love life. You love food. You enjoy yourself.

MB: What else is there? Women? Women just break your heart. Food is love.

SILVIO: You can eat anything you want as long as you eat with love. Martin, men like us, we are so hard on ourselves already. Listen to me.... Get those crazy women out of your life.

MB: I know. I know.

there are three kinds of restaurateurs. First, there are the ones who open restaurants to make money. This is dicey, because the failure rate for new restaurants is very high. Then there are those who open restaurants intentionally to lose money because they believe a restaurant would be a fun toy, a jolly tax write-off and make for interesting small talk at cocktail parties. The third type is another breed altogether. These are the people who own restaurants because it is in their blood. The restaurant begins as a tabula rasa and winds up being a sort of Jungian projection of one's inner life, or a kind of gestalt. In this instance, the restaurant does not live or die by its food, or its service, or its ambience, though the three are inseparable. Here, some kind of alchemy takes place and the fusion of all three must happen, and the restaurateur's spirit must infuse every corner of the dining room like a friendly ghost.

This is a story of my dinners with Silvio de Mori, who has owned or run 14 restaurants since 1968, and of my dinners with him, and of my ultimate failure to practice journalistic objectivity when confronted by his gale force, mercurial personality that is as much a part of the menu as the Florentine-style double rib-eye steak and linguine with spicy marinara, garlic and Parmigiano. It is the story of the life of an inveterate restaurateur, and the ups and downs of the business.

Silvio's current venture is de Mori, which has been a work in progress since it opened last June. (His prior venue was the highly regarded Mimosa, now owned by his former partner, chef Jean-Pierre Bosc. The two also owned Cafe des Artistes in Hollywood, but more on that later.) Originally, the idea behind de Mori was to serve simple, rustic food prepared from his repertoire of family recipes. Partly for this reason, and partly because he wanted her closer at hand, Silvio imported his mother, Maria, to supervise the preparation of such traditional family recipes as the Bolognese and the minestrone. Mama de Mori, however, proved to be rather more ambitious than anticipated, leading to a number of contretemps worthy of a Lina Wertmuller film.

SILVIO: If there's no Bolognese, then we get into a fight. If there's too much salt in the minestrone, we have a fight. She sent a photo crew away. "Get them out of here, I'm not prepared!" She's always yelling at the waiters in Italian. They don't understand, but they always say, "Yes, Mama!" I come into the kitchen, she chase me out. She don't want me to have the recipes, especially for the Bolognese. She takes a bus to get in early so they can't see her cook. And she keeps the spices all in a locker so nobody can see what she put in the minestrone. We have fun until she thinks she's running the restaurant. The suppliers are terrified of her! Every time she grabs her handbag, everybody sighs with relief and says, "Are you leaving?" And she yells back, "No!"

(Grappa and espresso finished, MB totters toward the cash register.)

SILVIO: What are you waiting around here for? Go on, you're getting in my way.

MB: I need the check.

SILVIO: What is this about check? There is no check.

MB: I have to pay for this, Silvio! I'm interviewing you.

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