Pietro’s, a Homey New York Steak House, Offers a Medium-Rare Goodbye

May 29, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Waiters in blue jackets wended through a crowded dining room balancing trays of martinis. A woman ran her fingers along a wall covered with markings of the heights of children. Longtime regulars handed servers farewell tips through firm handshakes.

It was the last night for Pietro’s, an old guard Italian steakhouse, at its decades-long address in Midtown Manhattan. Among the devout who had come to pay their respects on Thursday was the fashion designer Michael Kors, who sat at a corner table with his husband, Lance Le Pere.

“There is no Carbone without Pietro’s,” Mr. Kors said as he waited for a house specialty, Shells a la Nat, a pasta in bone-marrow sauce.

“The Michael Kors offices are in Midtown, so that’s why I come here,” he continued, “and I’ve always liked that you can still feel some of the ‘Mad Men’ era here. Pietro’s is the last of the Mohicans.”

Alan Appel, a tax law professor at New York Law School, ordered a veal parmigiana for his goodbye meal. “I’m 73 now, and when I heard Pietro’s was closing, I told myself, ‘I’ve lived too long already,’” he said. “I feel like I’m at a funeral right now.”

Pietro’s is considered the last survivor of Steak Row, a boulevard of restaurants that defined a time when business in New York was conducted over meat, martinis and cigarettes. Thirty years ago, Ruth Reichl, a former New York Times restaurant critic, wrote that it served “the single best steak I have had in New York.” The end of its time at 232 East 43rd Street came because its lease expired.

Though its owners said they hoped to reopen Pietro’s nearby with a sleek redesign, regulars gathered to savor one last meal in the restaurant’s time-capsule atmosphere, which included pennants for New York sports teams over the bar and a pay phone by the entrance.

“I’ve heard they will reopen,” Mr. Kors said, “and I’ll be the first one there if they do. But I just hope they don’t try to gloss it up too much. I want to see a carpeted floor. I want to see the blue-jacketed waiters again.”

Paul Nix, a retired lawyer who flew in from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the occasion, was sipping a martini at the bar.

“I’ve had hundreds of martinis at this barstool over the years,” Mr. Nix said. “When I got word tonight was the last night, I dropped everything to fly in and be here. I know they hope to relocate, and I’m optimistic, but I hope they still have worn out and uncomfortable bar stools at the new place.”

Taking his leave from dinner was Joseph Califano, 93, a onetime political aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“My last Pietro’s supper was a veal parm, a chopped salad and Scotch on ice,” he said. “The food is as good now as it was when my father took me here. I never did take Johnson to Pietro’s while I worked for him, but I think he would have loved it.”

Pietro’s was founded in 1932 by Pietro and Natale Donini, brothers from Parma, Italy. Today David Bruckman runs the restaurant with his father, Bill, who started working at Pietro’s as a busboy in the 1980s. (Another son, Billy, manages a Long Island outpost).

In their cluttered office, the father and son said the closing was connected to the recent sale of the Pfizer building, which houses Pietro’s. They also addressed the anxieties of regulars who were worried about the next iteration.

“It’s bittersweet, but it’s time to bring Pietro’s into the 21st century,” the elder Mr. Bruckman said. “Even if our lease was renewed and the building wasn’t being sold, this is a very old space. I’m not going to miss having to repeatedly kick our air-conditioner to get it to work.”

On his desktop computer, David Bruckman pulled up a rendering for a new Pietro’s. One schematic portrayed a retro-chic concept with bistro tables, tiled floors, green leather banquettes and a chandelier. The summary read: “A new take on an old school, ‘Mad Men’ era, New York City Institution. Reimagined as a glowing, time-honored space.”

“Our vision is to have an old-school red sauce establishment, but to kick it up,” Mr. Bruckman said. “We have people here tonight who want the next Pietro’s to resemble every square inch of how it is now, but it’s time for this place to go out with dignity.”

His father reminisced about the wet-lunch days.

“You couldn’t even see the person in front of you because there was so much cigarette smoke,” he said. “Young people today have never even seen an ashtray. And they drank so many martinis then that they were bouncing off the walls. If I didn’t see it all with my own two eyes, I wouldn’t even believe it happened.

“The fax machine ended the three-martini lunch,” he added. “After that, people didn’t need to do business one-on-one anymore. That was the beginning of the end.”

As midnight neared, a few diners lingered at their tables, conversing over sambuca and tiramisu. A last-call gang hung out by the bar as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan songs played from a speaker. Among them was Jason Weyeneth, a financier, who polished off a bottle of Blanton’s bourbon with a straw.

“I’m scared they won’t reopen, or that, if they do, they can’t recreate what’s here,” he said. “Cities are living creatures. They evolve. Not everything lasts.”

The elder Mr. Bruckman, 67, had been busy hugging his regulars goodbye, but he finally sat down with a beer to take in the closing-time scene. Considering that he started working at Pietro’s in his 20s, he had been noticeably stoic throughout the evening. But as a blue-jacketed waiter cleared off the tables beside him, he allowed himself a moment of introspection.

“They’ve all been leaving in tears tonight, but I want them to know we plan to come back,” Mr. Bruckman said. “Maybe tonight still didn’t sink in for me, though, and maybe it will be a while before it does.

“I’ve been tough on the outside all day,” he continued. “Because I can’t be seen breaking down in front of so many people. But I’ve had to step out of the restaurant a few times today, just to be alone by myself.”

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