June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN A GRIEVING BILL COSBY sought comfort food last April, he called Sirio Maccioni, owner of Le Cirque 2000. Maccioni knew Cosby had recently lost his son Ennis, so even though the restaurant’s opening was weeks away and the dining rooms were bare, a table was set in the kitchen for the comedian, his wife, Camille, and daughter Evin. Cosby even got into the act. “He cooked himself,” says Marco Maccioni, 29, the second of Sirio’s three sons, who are in the family business. “He’s always done that.” In fact the Maccionis privately call that evening’s pasta dish—penne with vegetables, capers and tomatoes—Pasta di Cosby. “He likes it a little spicy,” says Sirio, who bestows his highest accolade on Cosby: “He likes to eat.”

Cosby is not alone. Since the mid-town Manhattan eatery reopened last April 30, stretch limos have been double-parked outside at lunch as well as dinner, and reservations are harder to come by than fresh white truffles in summer. Just as he did at the original Le Cirque (“the circus” in French), which closed last June, Maccioni, 65, watches over his famous guests, insisting that Nancy Reagan’s grilled flounder ($29) be perfectly prepared and that Barbara Walters is served her mesclun salad ($15) at her favorite see-and-be-seen table at the top of the stairs. “He’s like an ambassador,” says Ivana (Trump) Mazzucchelli, who held her 1995 third-wedding reception at the old restaurant. “He knows everything that’s going on.” Adds Henry Kissinger, a regular: “Sirio takes a lot of care. He knows [my wife] Nancy’s and my preferences.” In fact the only drawback of the new establishment, he jokes, is that “it’s hard to eavesdrop. At the old Le Cirque you were sitting closer together.”

A shame, really. Otherwise one might have overheard Frank Gifford’s catch-you-later to Kathie Lee before his May 1 matinee with a flight attendant, Donald Trump’s tête-à-tête with Maria the day before they announced their split, or caught the latest Hollywood gossip from George Clooney, Diana Ross and Michael Douglas, all recent guests, as they tucked into one of executive chef Sottha Khunn’s signature dishes, such as “Paupiette” of Black Sea Bass in crispy potatoes with braised leeks in Barolo sauce ($32).

Designed by Adam Tihany and bankrolled by the royal family of Brunei (who own the New York Palace Hotel, which houses Le Cirque 2000), the multimillion-dollar, 120-seat interior displays three-ring panache. Guests enter into a blue-and-red silk tent, clown buttons line purple-velvet chairs, and in the bar a clock balances on a wire suspended over patrons. “It’s a high-wire act,” explains Tihany. “I tried to evoke the spirit of the circus without being a theme restaurant.”

The older of two children, Maccioni gave little thought to a restaurant career, growing up on a farm outside the spa town of Montecatini-Terme, Italy. His father, Eugenio, a hotel concierge, and mother, Silvia, a homemaker, urged him to work the land. But after Silvia died of a pulmonary infection in 1940 and Eugenio, an Italian army sergeant, was killed in World War II in 1944, Maccioni, who was raised by his paternal grandmother, decided to accept the free tuition offered by a local hotel-and-restaurant school.

After finishing in 1950, Maccioni moved to Paris, where actor Yves Montand, a former neighbor (“He’s Italian,” says Maccioni, “not French”), helped him land a job at the posh Plaza Athénée hotel. Stints at Maxim’s restaurant and the Kempinski Hotel Atlantic Hamburg followed. Then in 1956, Maccioni headed for New York City to learn English. He toiled in some of the city’s finest restaurants, including Delmonico’s and the Colony, before opening Le Cirque in 1974.

In the meantime he had wed Egidiana Palmieri, a hometown girl he met at a local dance. A singer by profession, she quit after the birth of their first son, Mario, now 32 (third son Mauro is 25). The boys now run the family’s other restaurant, Osteria del Circo. Says Maccioni: “Egi is really the power behind all of us.”

And behind the stove. When Maccioni returns to his Upper East Side apartment after a day’s work, it’s Egi who whips up his favorite dish—two fried eggs with tomatoes. “To tell the truth,” she says, “Sirio never cooks.”

STEVEN LANG

MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

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