Few, if any, sommeliers working today have witnessed—and contributed to—the evolution of fine wining and dining in America as much as Renzo Rapacioli in his five-decade career. From his family bistro in the small Italian town of San Michele, Rapacioli, 72, would go on to manage the wine programs at some of the most illustrious restaurants in New York.
Rapacioli's journey began humbly. After emigrating from Italy to Manhattan in 1960 at the age of 16, Rapacioli wasted no time diving into the restaurant scene, working first as a busboy at the former midtown hot spot Laurent.
Upon returning home from his time in the US Army, Rapacioli was promoted to sommelier at Laurent, building the predominantly French wine list to a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1985; he stayed on until the restaurant closed in 1990. Stints at other iconic New York restaurants '21' Club and Barolo followed. Rapacioli also acted as president of the Sommelier Society of America from 1981 to 1984 and again from 1990 to 1993.
When Barolo closed in 2013, Rapacioli pondered retirement until he received a call from Laura Maioglio, the legendary proprietor of Barbetta, a 110-year-old family-owned restaurant considered by many to be a New York institution. Maioglio quickly convinced Rapacioli to oversee Barbetta’s Best of Award of Excellence–winning, Piedmont-focused wine list, which he is still doing today. Rapacioli sat down with tasting coordinator Gillian Sciaretta to discuss his storied career, the entertaining stories he has gathered along the way and what gives him the most satisfaction as a sommelier.
Wine Spectator: How did you get your start in wine?
Renzo Rapacioli: When I was in Italy and 16 years old, my family had a small osteria. It was like a bistro, in San Michele in Emilia-Romagna. My father used to make the wine too, which we would serve by the glass, and people would come to drink and play cards.
In 1959, my father decided to come to the United States with the help a chef friend, with my mother and three older brothers. Eventually, they saved enough money and my mother went back to Italy in 1960 to get me, my brother and three sisters and bring us to New York. I will never forget the trip on the ship Olympia; what an experience to arrive in New York for a young boy who had never traveled more than 50 kilometers from his house.
Immediately, I started working as a busboy in this restaurant called Laurent on 56th Street. There was a sommelier at Laurent who used to wear the chain with the tastevin and the apron, and I was always paying attention to him. [It was] a very unique job in those days.
I had managed to get a high school diploma, so [after my service], I was considering going to college or school for trade, but I went back to Laurent. And when I went back, there was a new sommelier, Françoise, an older French gentleman, who was also the President of the Sommelier Society of America. He got to like me and one day told me, "Renzo, if you want to advance you should take some courses on wine."
I don’t know if Françoise wanted me to take courses because he liked me or because he wanted to retire, but as soon as I graduated, he told the owner of Laurent, Mr. [Laurent] Losa, "I am retiring, and you should give Renzo a chance [to be the sommelier] because he can do it."
I was a little nervous in the beginning as the sommelier. But I got to know some of the customers, and it really began to work out.
WS: What was the scene like at Laurent when you worked as the sommelier?
RR: Laurent was not the most popular restaurant, but it was a secret hideout for many celebrities who wanted a special dinner without being bothered by obnoxious fans.
Just to mention a few celebrities, there were [actors] Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Anthony Quinn, and Joey Heatherton. [Looney Tunes animator] Chuck Jones always drew cartoon characters of Pepe LePew and Road Runner on the Laurent menu for me to give to my children. When Salvador Dalí was in town he used to stay at the St. Regis, but he always had a special table at Laurent reserved for lunch and dinner.
WS: What kinds of wines were they serving at Laurent?
RR: It was mostly French, but we also had Californian like Beaulieu Vineyard. Italian wine in those days you just had Bardolino, Lambrusco and other basic wines.
In 1980, Mr. Losa built this beautiful cellar and started to really get into wine. People like [Wine Spectator editor and publisher] Mr. Shanken used to eat at Laurent, and in 1985, we got the Grand Award. It was wonderful. Those days were busy. Six days a week, I would arrive at 10 in the morning and not leave until midnight. Laurent Restaurant was a special place for wine lovers, wine connoisseurs.
WS: '21' Club is also another restaurant frequented by celebrities and dignitaries. Any memorable stories from your time there?
RR: One night there were two former presidents of the United States, one at 6 p.m., the other at 8 p.m.
I also remember while working in the banquet department, I was scolded by Frank Sinatra. He had a show at Radio City and booked a private room at the restaurant for about 20 guests. At the end of the meal, he was having an espresso and asked for a Sambuca. I told the waiters, but they ended up taking too long. Mr. Sinatra called me over and asked me, “Where is my Sambuca? My espresso is now cold!” I apologized for the delay and told him I would get him a new espresso, but he told me to forget it. I’m still wondering why the show was canceled that night.
WS: What was it like to transition to managing the Italian-focused wine program at Barolo?
RR: It was a challenge for me to go to Barolo in 1996. I was personally intrigued about what it would be like to work with one of the largest selections of Barolos and many other well-known Italian wines. I am Italian myself, but I had been working for so many years in French and American restaurants that I felt ready for a challenge in learning about the modern Italian wines that were becoming so successful and popular during that time in the United States. So I said to myself, "Why not go back to my roots!"
It has been a big change and evolution for Italian wine. There is wine that is now really popular, like Arneis, which you couldn’t find in [my earlier] days. Italians have really started going for more quality than quantity. Today, they even have Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which you used to buy for a magnum at $5 or $6, that is expensive because they reduced the production to actually compete with other wines.
Paolo Secondo, the owner of Barolo, still jokes with me that I know nothing about Italian wine, but he put me in charge of the whole wine program at Barolo and his other restaurants. He was not just a boss but also a friend.
WS: You are now at Barbetta, which has a 2,000-selection wine list chock-full of Piedmont wines. What is it like working there?
RR: After seeing Barbetta’s wine list when I first started working here and what a beautiful restaurant it is, I was reminded of the old-school feeling of Laurent.
It is a great satisfaction and honor to work for Mrs. Maioglio, who single-handedly runs a restaurant of this style. There are many rewards to doing this but also many aggravations, responsibilities and complications on a daily basis. My hat's off to her for doing it all these years.
WS: Looking back, what are you most proud of?
RR: In my 56 years in the restaurant business, I had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people, made many friends among producers and sommeliers from all over the world, participated in many wine competitions and traveled to many different wine regions around the world.
But the most satisfying feeling is the appreciation from the customer when they compliment you on your service and wine suggestions for their meal.