The charmingly bumptious "Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven," which premieres tonight on HBO, is an Italian American family comedy in the form of a documentary about a restaurant -- not your typical checked-tablecloth, candle-in-the-wine-bottle pasta and pizza place, either, but a formidable (and French-leaning) institution among the Manhattan upper crust for more than three decades. Director Andrew Rossi follows founder Sirio Maccioni, his wife Egidiana and their three sons -- Mario, Marco and Mauro -- as they close the second Le Cirque and open the third.
Sirio, now 76, began his life in restaurants at age 13 in the hotel-rich Italian town of Montecatini. He arrived in New York as a waiter on an ocean liner, and after becoming famous as the maitre d' at the legendary Colony on the eve of the beginning of its decline, opened the first Le Cirque in the lower reaches of the Upper East Side in 1974. It was the power place of its time -- Nixon, Reagan, Helen Gurley Brown -- though its time inevitably passed.
The second, called Le Cirque 2000, carried the ball from 1996 to 2004, but the way things were arranged there it became hard to make a profit even selling Henry Kissinger expensive appetizers. (I don't know what else you could do with a restaurant called Le Cirque 2000 in the year 2004 except close it.) Yet even as those doors were shut, plans were being laid for the next incarnation, which opened in 2006 in the fancy Bloomberg Building.
"I have been working in restaurants all my life" are the first words we hear Sirio say, his Italian accent still formidable after half a century in America. "But I hate this business. In the morning, I wake up. My wife put some ice on my head. I have an espresso. And she push me out of the door."
He comes off as nervous and exasperated, but in a forceful way that cements his position. He denigrates himself and the work he does -- a restaurateur is "a presumptuous waiter," he tells Charlie Rose in 2004 -- even as he aggressively promotes and defends his old-fashioned, jacket-and-tie view of that world.
Of his own sons, he says, "Not only do they have the misfortune to have a father that run a restaurant, but they were stupid enough to follow me into the business." This is doubly so in that they are in the business with their father -- and with one another -- which leads to "Lear"-like complication and competition. ("The Godfather" is the family comparison preferred by Mauro, who complains that as the youngest son his family thinks he doesn't know what he's talking about: "But maybe with a little more screaming and yelling I make myself heard.")
Emotions run high; arguments jump from English to Italian and back, and back again. The kids want growth and innovation and things to please the "young people"; dad wants a place where the people he's been serving for years -- Tony Bennett, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Joan Collins -- will feel happy, and be assured of a nice salad, a prosciutto and melon and a strict dress code. Mom tries to calm the waters, cooks spaghetti and feeds it to her brood. Everyone waits to see how many stars the New York Times will award them.
Although life as a Maccioni must be fairly stressful, sharp-eyed director Rossi keeps his tone buoyant, affectionate and amused. It's a lovely little film.
'Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven'
When: 8 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)