Though he can’t carry a tune and isn’t a virtuoso player of any instrument, director-producer Bob Giraldi has created some of the best music videos for stars such as Michael Jackson, Pat Benatar and Lionel Richie. Giraldi, 47, is also no cook, which made it seem almost logical 15 months ago that he and business partner Phil Suarez opened a triumph of Italian gastronomy in Manhattan called Positano. The restaurant, on Park Avenue South, looks as good as the food there tastes, and Giraldi is the first to admit that much of Positano’s verve and style is pure showbiz. “No matter what anybody says,” he explains, “a restaurant is a production. Phil and I can do it because we have done productions all our lives.” Adds partner Suarez, 43, “We picked the brains of the people who worked on commercial and video sets. We used the same carpenters who worked on the set of Beat It to create the restaurant.”
Positano gets its name from the owners’ favorite seaside town on Italy’s Amalfi coast. To echo the village’s hillside setting, architect Randy Croxton designed a multilevel interior that seats 140. Graphics designer Milton Glaser gave it a pale pink, cream and green decor, plus a stylized mermaid logo on the plates and menu. Music on a state-of-the-art sound system—which progresses from Sinatra to Cyndi Lauper as the evening wears on—tends to be mellow, just the way Giraldi likes it.
The food, too, must meet Giraldi’s fussy standards. “My mother was an Italian gourmet; I mean, I’m talking serious cooking,” he says, recalling his youth in Paterson, N.J. As his mother, Minnie, now 75, puts it: “Things that many other people are just starting to eat now, we always had—squid, minestra, tripe marinara, stuffed artichokes. Bob ate all of these as a baby. If it was pasta, it was good-looking pasta, with broccoli and clams. I even stuffed escarole. It is not easy to stuff an escarole.”
Bob was an appreciative son who, as an art student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, “came home every weekend to strip my refrigerator clean,” Minnie says. After Giraldi launched his career as a commercial artist, he was married to high school sweetheart Marian McCarthy (and eventually raised a family of three children). For years before their wedding, Bob notes approvingly, “Marian had been smart enough to hang out in the kitchen with my mother and learn to cook Italian. So I’ve never been given an ordinary meal.”
With Suarez, Bob formed Bob Giraldi Productions, Inc. (now Giraldi Suarez) in 1973. Together they have won more than 300 advertising awards and given TV advertising lore such memorable moments as the Miller Lite and Pepsi commercials. Today they can command $6,000 an hour for their efforts. It was in pursuit of clients for the TV work that Suarez first became a part-time restaurateur. He and wife Lucy summered on Fire Island, where, Phil says, the hors d’oeuvres at the local restaurant were made with Cheez Whiz. “I mean, I’d lose clients taking them there,” he says. In self-defense he opened Le Dock, now regarded as the toniest eatery at the seashore colony.
The seeds for the restaurant Positano, however, were planted in 1981, when Bob and Marian celebrated 20 years of marriage with a trip to Italy. The Giraldis asked Phil and Lucy to join them, and the foursome wound up in Positano. “It is built straight up a mountainside rising from the sea, and Bob flipped out,” says Marian. “We fell in love,” says Bob. “With the pasta,” adds Marian. Bob remembers encountering “pasta vongole with small clams, fritto misto di pesce, which is fried seafood, and linguini with white clam sauce. Their ingredients are natural. They cook a little gentler than we do. You can eat two meals a day including pasta and not put on too much weight.”
Back in New York, the idea of recreating such pleasures in a restaurant began to germinate. Early in 1984 the two couples returned to Positano on a two-week “chef-hunting” expedition. And, yes, Luigi Celentano, the 32-year-old executive chef at the Hotel Le Sirenuse, would consider relocating to America. His audition lasted for hours—and included pasta fagioli, a soup with dried beans cooked with pasta, spaghetti with small shrimps and tirami su, a cheese pastry. “We knew we had our superstar,” says Bob.
Chef Celentano is particularly deft with seafoods. One specialty: luvaro alla benedetta, red snapper broiled with vinegar and fresh mint. His most distinctive pasta is linguine alla guidea with pancetta, escarole and black olives, which happens to be a Giraldi favorite. Suarez prefers the rigatoni all’ ambrosiana with tomato cream sauce and pimiento.
If the food weren’t lure enough to attract a hip crowd, the TV background of the proprietors would certainly add to the draw. Boy George, Pia Zadora, Daryl Hall and John Oates have dropped by, but the mainstays are young city strivers who are not faint of wallet. Dinner for two with drinks: around $100.
“I really don’t have other things in life that I want to do,” says Giraldi. “I don’t want to make Citizen Kane. I don’t long to write the great American novel. The only thing I’ve always wanted to do is to open an Italian restaurant.” Well, maybe two Italian restaurants. Word is out that the partners are scouting sites in Beverly Hills for a Positano West. That, if it comes to pass, would make them doubly happy.