One recent afternoon, sporting his signature blue (not white) chef’s shirt and tangerine orange scarf, Luigi Russo is sitting under an enormous, gilded baroque mirror in the grand dining room of Il Postino, his new Italian eatery on East 61st. Large black-and-white photographs of movie stars, such as Sophia Loren, flank the walls, while a table overflowing with fresh vegetables, cheeses, and other delicacies commands the entrance to the room. “People appreciate old world ambience,” Russo tells me in his deep Roman accent. “Old world can be clothing, shoes, food — it never goes out of style.”
Russo, who also owns the venerable Scalinatella two blocks east of Il Postino — named after his favorite film — has effectively built an Italian culinary empire on the Upper East Side. He bops back and forth between the two locations throughout the week and, although he lives with his wife and two grown children in Westbury on Long Island, he keeps a studio above Il Postino as a crash pad when it’s too late to commute home. “This is all I do in my life — the restaurants,” he says as he carefully combs through Il Postino’s daily specials; so lengthy, they could be a novella. The ambitious menu at Il Postino spans the best of Italian fare.
Russo is famous for his Dover sole, which sells out fast, as well as his meats (he will only buy lamb from Colorado) and pastas, which are made fresh daily. Russo’s dishes are dictated by what is seasonal and fresh. “I have a really big selection of food here and tremendous food costs. But you can come here and dine every night.” And dine every night people do. Both locations are filled with die-hard regulars, New York power players who eat there at least twice a week.
Russo grew up in Castelforte, a small town southeast of Rome, where he started cooking when he was just six years old. “Every woman in my mother’s family should have been a five-star chef,” he declares proudly, tapping the table with his finger. “At five o’clock in the morning, my grandmother had the pasta ready. My grandfather would go buy meat and fish every day. We made our own cheeses. There was no refrigerator. We ate what was available in the market. We never ate anything out of season.” Russo came to New York when he was still in school, working as a waiter and then a captain in high-end restaurants. This familial love of fresh food is what drives the menu at both Il Postino and Scalinatella.
“My goal is to make everything as authentic as possible,” he says. “I was 27 when I signed my first lease. I was very ambitious and full of energy. I had focus. I dreamed that my place would have celebrities and a loyal clientele. And it happened.”
Russo’s wife, Maria, a statuesque blonde who worked for years in the fashion business, is his secret weapon. Maria runs the show behind the scenes, greets guests at the door nightly, and tackles the difficult task of seating the clientele, many of whom are regulars. “It’s like an art or science,” she says with a laugh. “I need to make sure everyone has the right table.” Russo nods his head. “It’s very, very difficult,” he agrees. “People come for dinner and then want to have a meeting with me after. ‘Why didn’t you give me a corner table?’ they ask me.”
Russo met his wife at Scalinatella’s first location on East 49th Street. Maria had cancelled the meeting, set up by friends, twice. “I had two dogs at home. I just wanted to go home from work and see my dogs,” she chuckles. “I tried to cancel a third time, but I went to the dinner and we started talking about food and recipes.” Luigi interrupts. “She didn’t fall in love with me. She fell in love with the food,” he says, giving his wife a playful wink. The next day, Russo had orchids delivered to Maria’s office. “He sent flowers, but no note. It was a little shocking,” she admits. “I had to call the florist and ask who sent them.” Russo interjects: “I wanted her to work for it!” Maria finishes the love story: “We started dating and the rest is history. We have been together 22 years.”
Will Russo open a third restaurant? “I would, but I’m starting to get old,” he confesses. “It takes a lot of energy to do that.” Plus, Il Postino is still new and exciting. “We have a very loyal clientele and it keeps us open,” he says as waiters buzz around the room, prepping for a busy night. “I always wanted this exact spot on 61st Street,” he says proudly. “There is a history of restaurants here, going back to David Burke. Everybody all over the world is fascinated by New York because this is the greatest city in the world.”