By Allan Ripp
Gabriel Aiello is one of those people who pinch themselves to make sure their good fortune is real. At his longtime namesake restaurant Gabriel’s just off Columbus Circle, Aiello loved standing in the middle of the clubby dining room surveying the tourists and regulars, who on any given night might have included Oprah, Tom Hanks, Warren Buffett, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Lloyd Blankfein, Tim and Nina Zagat, Stephen Colbert or other A-listers.
“You won’t believe how many covers we did yesterday,” he’d tell me, referring to individual meals served and pointing out some mogul seated nearby. No one needed to convince me that Gabriel’s was a power magnet. I once saw Michael Bloomberg dispensing advice over a plate of grilled salmon to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. My annual office lunch was abuzz one year with Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes huddled in the next booth – a Schindler’s List reunion.
Aiello himself sometimes traveled to Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley media finance retreat at the invite of longtime customer Herb Allen, who was known to favor a plain bowl of pasta and tomato sauce at his back-table perch at Gabriel’s. (Full disclosure – two of my children had their Bar & Bat Mitzvah luncheons at Gabriel’s.)
A New Jersey native who trained at Johnson & Wales University, Aiello opened Gabriel’s in 1991 when the West Side neighborhood was still a wasteland and the Time Warner Center 13 years away. With zero PR or marketing but a solid Northern Italian menu and great bar, the restaurant drew a steady following, especially when nearby CBS heavyweights like Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and Morley Safer made it a hangout (all four had their memorial dinners at Gabriel’s).
Over time came offers for expansion, including one from Related’s Steve Ross to join the Time Warner crowd – Aiello declined since it would have meant abandoning his preferred street-level location for an upper floor setting. He also turned down a chance to take a spot at the lower level of Rockefeller Center. Then came an invitation from casino tycoon Steve Wynn to open a branch at his Bellagio in Las Vegas. But that would have obligated Aiello to spend 145 days a year apart from his three children, plus his loyal customers. No deal.
It grated on Aiello that The New York Times consistently avoided reviewing the restaurant. But the lack of press never kept diners away. Neither did growing competition around Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center, nor even the ghastly scaffolding that shrouded his entrance for a decade.
Then came notice in December 2018 that the building housing Gabriel’s would be demolished to make room for a residential tower. After scrambling for eight months, Aiello chose to relocate to a high-traffic spot on 40 Central Park South between Fifth and Sixth Avenues – right next to popular fixture Sarabeth’s. The last meal served at Columbus Circle was July 24, 2019; he signed the new lease that September. The plan, aided by top restaurant designer David Rockwell, was to open the new Gabriel’s in spring 2020.
“We’d mostly finished demolition and were just starting drywall and electrical when Covid shut us down in March,” he recalls. “The sleepless nights hit in April. By June my family and friends advised me to take my losses and call it a day. I came close, since I was undertaking this mostly on my own without investors. In the end, I couldn’t walk away – I missed my employees and the joy of seeing a roomful of patrons.”
On the hook for hefty rent and an ambitious build-out – and responsible for wait staff, busboys, butchers, sauciers and pasta makers who had been with him for over 30 years (some going back to a restaurant he previously managed in TriBeCa called Arqua) – Aiello took out more loans and mortgaged his Hamptons house. Even when construction resumed late last summer there were supply chain delays getting materials delivered from Italy and China, plus a massive fee to New York’s Department of Buildings for design alterations.
“The headaches have been endless but I’ve showed up every day and made a million decisions,” he explains. “That includes ensuring that our hands-free toilets flush properly and automatic hand dryers have enough hot air, and our air-conditioning has quality antivirus filters and ultraviolet lighting in the ducts. I don’t even have time to date – I just go home at night to look at menus.”
Somehow, he and his crew endured and the new Gabriel’s is quietly back in business for soft launch, with much of his old staff intact, minus a beloved busboy named Victor, who died of Covid last July. Even Aiello’s two sons – Gabriel, Jr. and Theo – are on the payroll and an active part of the operation.
Aiello gave me a tour of the 4,600-square foot dining room, with painted curtained banquettes and a wraparound bar made of butternut wood, oiled brass and a soft green marble top (with a four-inch drink rail). “That’s a $125,000 investment right there,” he says. Masks and Purell are more plentiful than peppermills; tables are safely distanced and sanitized and freshly clothed after each seating. Gabriel’s new chef Alessandro Pendinelli is ensconced in a kitchen so large that he jokes he needs GPS to keep track of all the staff.
Aiello takes me outside. “A year ago, the only people you saw coming by 59th Street were construction workers and doormen – even the locals had left town and it was deserted. Now, it’s couples holding hands, joggers, shoppers, hansom carriage rides and tourists taking selfies, can you believe it?” he says, noting that the Ritz-Carlton, Park Lane and other nearby hotels are also starting to fill up.
“Midtown offices may not return so quickly but restaurant people want to be transported again and have someone else do the dishes,” he adds. “We’re like the shiny new penny. As long as there’s no resurgence of cases, I think New York will enjoy a jailbreak economy by fall and we’ll be doing 60-70% of our indoor business by Christmas.” Even so, his upgraded private room includes a mega screen for videoconferencing. “Things were slow after the financial crisis but back then the Internet was lousy.”
For now, it’s limited seating with outdoor lunches starting soon. He tells me actor/neighbor Bryan Cranston stopped by with shopping bags on both arms to check things out. And “Mr. Buffett” emailed a hopeful return when he next visits the city. “We did 70 covers at dinner the other night,” Aiello crows. “Two years ago, I would have shot myself. Last year it was impossible. But now – it’s unbelievable!”
Mr. Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.