As a movie producer, Dino De Laurentiis thinks big. He’s spent mega-bucks to give audiences The Bible, Orca the Killer Whale and Jessica Lange in King Kong’s hand. Why should the 63-year-old Italian mogul be any less outrageous as a shopkeeper? Six weeks ago, on New York’s West Side, he unveiled his latest project: a $3.6 million specialty food emporium that resembles a traditional New York deli the way the Queen Elizabeth 2 resembles an East River garbage barge. Already the talk of the town and the haunt of Christopher Reeve, Lauren Bacall, Liv Ullmann and Mayor Ed Koch, the store, called DDL Foodshow, is grossing $130,000 a week. It could turn out to be Dino’s biggest hit.
Like every other De Laurentiis enterprise, DDL Foodshow is larger than life. A staff of 140 works round the clock to prepare and stock the store’s 4,000 exotic items. The 10-foot rotisserie grills 54 chickens simultaneously, and the aisles are four shopping carts wide. There’s something for every palate—if not pocketbook. Potato salad with salmon, lobster, striped bass and sole is $10 a pound; Porchetta alla romana—roast suckling pig—is $7.99 a half pound, and a seafood salad called Insalata Marco Polo is a stiff $8.95 per half pound.
Designed by the architect who created New York’s Xenon discotheque, the Foodshow features a huge copper-hooded hearth, a spectacular atrium and spotlights on the food. “The store is my baby,” De Laurentiis beams. “I don’t need this, but my hobby is to cook. New York needs this kind of operation.”
The filmmaker began planning the Foodshow after the July 1981 death of his 26-year-old son, Federico, who was killed in a plane crash while shooting a documentary in Alaska. “It is the big tragedy of my life,” says De Laurentiis. According to his daughter, Francesca, 21, he opened the store “so he wouldn’t have his mind free for a second.” He appears there most mornings at 6:30 before going to his production office 22 blocks away. “He wants to taste everything personally,” marvels Francesca’s husband, Pepe, 30, who serves as manager of the store’s import division. De Laurentiis considers his taste in food as impeccable as his taste in movies. “When I cook, I put a touch of this here, a touch there,” he says. “I use no recipe. When Picasso painted, he put some red in somewhere. He never knew why, he just did it. That’s why I cook like Picasso. A really good chef is an artist.”
The Foodshow’s major problem so far is one its owner knows all too well: the critics. Italian cookbook author Giullano Bugialli sniffs, “I expected to find something new, but I didn’t.” Master chef James Beard contends that the surroundings are better than the selections. “The Foodshow doesn’t live up to its startling framework. It’s like putting a Norman Rockwell into a framework for the Mona Lisa.”
De Laurentiis isn’t deterred by naysayers. In April he intends to open another New York store on Fifth Avenue and a Beverly Hills outlet, and eventually branches in Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and Chicago. When De Laurentiis wants to slacken his hectic pace, he retreats, of course, to the kitchen. “When I cook,” he says, “my mind stops completely.”