Thursday, July 17, 2003

Reality show serves up real life of restaurant

TV preview

By Frazier Moore
The Associated Press

Suspense! Romance! Mama's meatballs!

These are all on the menu at The Restaurant (10 p.m. Sunday, Channels 5, 22), a tasty new "unscripted drama" series.

As it probes the inner workings of a real-life Manhattan dining spot called Rocco's, The Restaurant will surely bridge any remaining gap between the act of cooking or eating for its own sake, and performance art for an audience of millions.

Consider: For a couple of weeks after opening last month, Rocco's required every patron to sign a model release before gaining admittance.

And once inside, every diner, like every employee, was under constant surveillance by nine prowling camera crews and two dozen remote-controlled cameras and microphones plugged into the ceilings and walls.

Cameras capture drama

"This is real life," declared Rocco DiSpirito, the 36-year-old culinary cutie-pie whose efforts to start this namesake eatery will give The Restaurant its dramatic arc.

"Real life plays itself out in restaurants every day," Rocco said, speaking above the diners' cumulative roar as he worked the room. "And we have the cameras to capture it: Both in the front of the house, with the illusion of the perfect environment, and the mechanics behind the scene, where it's chaotic, insane, intense, hot."

Hot, for sure. A grease fire erupted in the kitchen during the restaurant's calamitous opening night (seen in the second episode). This was before the dishwasher pegged out and Rocco got socked with a lawsuit. Such misadventures, and more, were vividly gathered by a filmmaking battalion under executive producer Mark Burnett (Survivor).

"I haven't been able to hide anything," Rocco said with a laugh as a camera crew drew close to catch his every word. "But I'm a fan of TV and being on TV."

A popular presence on the Food Network and NBC's Today show, Rocco meets the qualifications for a chef in the TV age: boyish charm befitting a kid raised in a close-knit Italian family in Queens; People magazine's approval as one of the "Sexiest Men Alive"; and, by the way, success in the restaurant field, particularly with his all-the-rage Manhattan establishment Union Pacific.

Of course, no star can carry a series by himself. During the six-week run of The Restaurant, certain of Rocco's customers as well as employees will garner co-star status, emerging as breakout personalities.

The staff especially should demonstrate "all the joie de vivre that goes with the restaurant industry," suggested executive producer Robert Riesenberg. "They tend to be young, single, to live together, work together, party together."

Also logging face time will be suitably fabulous patrons.

"But I wouldn't have invented a restaurant to do a TV show," insisted Rocco, noting that the show dovetailed with his own vision: A restaurant-homage to the hearty Italian-American dishes he was raised on (including the meatballs of his mother, Nicolina, who, at 78, is the Chef de Cuisine of Rocco's and herself a colorful character).

Needed serious restaurateur

Inspired by a hit British series, the TV show part of this TV-restaurant fusion was brought to America by Ben Silverman, yet another executive producer.

"We thought we'd combine two industries with failure rates of 90 percent or higher," he quipped. The result: "A superstar chef in the toughest city in the world running a small business under the glass eye of television."

But as Riesenberg explained, "The chef we chose for the show had to have the wherewithal to set up his own restaurant. We're financing a television production" - for which intrusively placed brands of car, beer and credit card help pick up the tab - "but we needed the restaurateur to finance the restaurant."

Rocco, with financier (and Restaurant cast member) Jeffrey Chodorow, was ready to give it his all. Pronto. They needed the restaurant up and running in less than two months.

By the end of the series' premiere, Rocco has done the near impossible: found his East 22nd Street location, hired and trained a staff, gotten the construction work completed (well, almost), all in seven weeks.

Then, in mid-June, the TV people cleared out. "The Cameras Have Left the Building," a banner outside now jauntily proclaims. Just food, no fame: To dine at Rocco's is a private experience. But Sunday it goes public as few restaurants ever have. Viewers are likely to eat it up.

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