Americans are mad for the full diversity of fine Italian cuisine and wine, and for that they largely have restaurateur Tony May to thank. Best known as the man behind New York restaurants San Domenico, Palio and SD26, May passed away at age 84 on April 3 after a brief illness.
The oldest of eight children, May was born Antonio Magliulo in a town near Naples in 1937. As a young man, he secured work on ships carrying Italian immigrants to Argentina, and eventually made his way to New York in 1963. He found what passed for Italian food in the New World bore little resemblance to the food he’d grown up with. Several generations in a new country, adapting to local products and local tastes, had created a hybrid Italian-American cuisine. May resolved to introduce authentic Italian food.
First at the Rainbow Room, where he started as a captain in 1964 and rose to general manager within four years, and later at his restaurants Palio, San Domenico and SD26, May pushed for better products and more rigorous technique. He actively pursued culinary exchange, bringing chefs and winemakers from Italy to show the best the country offered and sending American chefs across the Atlantic to learn.
May’s rigor curried great loyalism. Chef Paul Bartolotta, currently owner and co-founder of the Bartolotta Restaurants in Milwaukee and previously chef at Spiaggia in Chicago and Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas, opened San Domenico for May and enjoyed years of his tutelage in the U.S. and Italy. “My story is directly owed to Tony, 100 percent,” he says. “From a personal level to a professional level to a business level, I owe it all to Tony.” Through May he learned Italian cuisine at the source, learned how to run a restaurant and met his wife.
“Tony was quite frustrated with the idea that there was southern Italian food that was tomato sauce and northern food was cream sauce,” Bartolotta remembers. May had three approaches to Italian food in the U.S.: “Traditional and regional was one. The original textbook. And then you have regionally inspired. Tony also believed you could do cucina creativa, the third type, which was where Italian food could be modern.”
May also founded the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani with the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce, to promote Italian food and wine. This was new at the time—American fine dining was firmly Francophile. “Tony was not only promoting Italian food, he was promoting Italian culture in every way possible,” said Bartolotta.
Andrew Carmellini, who now runs nearly 20 restaurants, including Locanda Verde and Carne Mare in New York, also got an early start from May. He was 19 and a private chef for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and his wife, Matilda. When Carmellini told Matilda he was going to work for chef David Bouley, she set up a meeting with May. “You’re Italian. You should cook Italian food,” she told him, Carmellini says. He got the job.
“I definitely learned what real Italian cooking is working for Tony,” he recalled. “And then I was in Italy for a year and then twice a year for 30 years. That started with Tony. He was one of the first people really hammering down on what was real actual Italian food.”
Carmellini sees May’s influence everywhere. Spaghetti alla chitarra con pomodoro, square cut noodles with a quickly cooked tomato sauce, a simple pasta dish that demands precision, was unknown then but ubiquitous now. “Cacio e pepe, which, let’s face it, is basically adult mac ’n’ cheese at this point, that was a dish in 1992 that was nowhere to be found anywhere in America,” said Carmellini. “So when he’d go to Italy he’d always smuggle some food in. He brought back a wheel of cacio e pepe cheese—salty Roman pecorino with black pepper inside it. He came back in the kitchen, put an apron over his suit, grated some cheese in a bowl, cooked pasta in water, put a little pasta water in the bowl. That didn’t exist here.”
May is survived by his wife, Hamila, and his daughter and business partner Marisa.
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