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A Seismic Shift for Upper East Side Power Dining

DATE POSTED:April 2, 2024
Photo: Hugo Yu

For the last 36 years, Oriente Mania has ridden the same red Tracer Osaka bicycle to work. He says it is the only way since, were he to walk, he’d be stopped at every turn by neighbors wanting to greet him. It is as if he’s in a small Italian village like Ronchi dei Legionari, where he grew up. But he is in the East 70s, and the friendly locals are the millionaires and billionaires that live here. “I’m very important in this business on the Upper East Side,” he says. “I know all the people — whatever name you say, I know where they were born, where they live, how many children. I know all this kind of stuff.”

These days, his commute has extended ten blocks north; he’s left Sette Mezzo, the Italian restaurant he’d opened and managed since 1989, to establish a new base of operations at Masseria East. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal — people in the restaurant industry move around all the time, right? — then you have likely never been a regular at Mania’s restaurant. If you were, you’d understand why this move has put the one-percenters of 10021 into such a bind.

“The only way I can explain what Sette Mezzo is is by telling you what it’s not,” says Brian Koppelman, who created Billions with David Levien. “Sette Mezzo doesn’t need you to, like, understand it.” Yes, the food — artichokes with taleggio, veal Milanese, orecchiette with broccoli — is very good, but that is not the point: “The language it speaks, encoded in things like the house account it offers to trusted regulars, is directed at the only audience it cares about.” It is, he continues, the people “whose palates, wallets, and sense of self speak exactly the same language.” This is the in-group, the people with enough power or wealth or both to stop caring how others see the world. “In other words,” Koppelman says, “the rich enough to live on terms they and only they define.”

If that description conjures the image of a place that will charge $35 for a serving of fried calamari or keep a handful of off-menu specials ready for regulars, that’s because it’s exactly what Sette Mezzo is. Regulars include Tisches, Newhouses, Geffens, and Griffins, who treat it as, yes, their clubhouse, where they hold discreet power lunches during the day, dine with their families at night, and charge it all to their tab. When Martin Scorsese’s wife wanted to throw him an intimate birthday dinner party, she took over half the room; Leonardo DiCaprio’s a frequent visitor. “It was our home away from home, our kitchen, is how we refer to it,” says Stephen Siegel, a real-estate mogul and the owner of Knickerbocker Bar & Grill downtown.

“For 34 years my husband and I, and our daughter, were welcomed by Oriente Mania into Sette Mezzo,” Susan Lipton, a former investment banker who ate there weekly, says. Over time, he became a “dear friend,” she adds. “He even made origami for my daughter when she was a child, to entertain her while she waited for her Bolognese.” Mania provided entertainment for the grown-ups, too. Siegel recalls cappuccino- and grappa-steeped evenings, where some customers might stay until 2 a.m.: “We used to sit there at night, and we would close the door. He would lock it, we’d smoke cigars and play cards, because sette e mezzo is a card game.”

It was more or less always this way. Mania and his partners opened the small restaurant in 1986 after finding success with an even smaller spot. When they expanded, they did so within easy walking distance from Park Avenue’s elite buildings — 720, 740, 770, and 778. “For 30 years, we did more than a hundred people every day between lunch and dinner,” Mania says.

But things change, and Mania — who at 75 years old was not shy about the fact that he was ready for retirement — says his partner, Gennaro Ventucci, began tweaking the business: He brought in his daughter and nephew to help run the business, while gradually stripping Mania of any executive power. “I was there,” he says, “but somebody else was making the decisions — not me.” He says the eventual separation was not amicable, but he refuses to divulge details. What he will say is that he believed a handshake agreement granting him equity in the business was made in good faith; Ventucci, it would turn out, did not.

So Mania had to go, and his timing was fortuitous. In the summer of 2022, the owners of Masseria in midtown took over Parma, a 45-year-old red-sauce institution on the corner of 80th and Third that had fallen out of fashion. The new proprietors shifted the focus to the food of Emilia-Romagna and renamed it Parma Nuovo, but that only ended up confusing people, and the desired customers never arrived. Finally, several months ago, they rebranded it as Masseria East, with a menu that would be familiar to devotees of the original restaurant. Business began to pick up, but it wasn’t doing as many covers a night as it could. Plus, it only served lunch on weekends.

Mania says revenue has nearly doubled since his arrival at the end of January. At Masseria East, he’s essentially starting over — and he’s been forced to delay his retirement — but he has an ownership stake now. “It’s my restaurant — I can do whatever I want.” If anything, the restaurant gets even more in return: Mania’s connections and relationships and Über-rich VIPs.

“I‘ve got the following from Sette Mezzo. Everybody comes to see me, every night,” Mania says. It’s not exactly a defection, but it’s a start. Lipton, the investment banker, has already dropped in, and Victoria Newhouse plans to. “I’ll go to Oriente’s new restaurant, particularly because of him, because he’s a very charming man,” she says. (She has not yet sworn off Sette Mezzo, however: “If I’m running to catch a quick meal, they’re always so fast — it’s great.”)

How does Mania feel about Sette Mezzo? Mostly, he says, he’s over it: “They can do whatever they want,” he shrugs. “Really, I’m a big shot here.”

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