This week, Robert De Niro’s ill-fated Ago reopens as Locanda Verde, a new Italian restaurant with top toque Andrew Carmellini in the kitchen, and, to fit the green theme, lots more plants. We chatted with New York’s iconic actor-restaurateur.
How many restaurants are you invested in?
I don’t know … 23, 24, 25. Almost twenty Nobus around the world; Ago in L.A., Florida, Las Vegas; Tribeca Grill; and now this, Locanda Verde. We spent a lot of time figuring out that name. With Italian restaurants, it’s hard because there’s so many. Somebody’s gonna come out of the woodwork and say you stole it.
What other names did you consider?
Well, I liked one called Quindi. Q-u-i-n-d-i. It means “And then.” And I liked Battuta, which is “wisecrack.” I thought that was funny. Now somebody’s going to steal these names.
Would you ever name a place De Niro’s?
No, I wouldn’t do that.
Is Ago the only restaurant you’ve closed?
One in Paris, a Nobu. They don’t always work. I’ve been very successful, but I’ve heard that a lot of times they don’t work. So, I’m mostly very lucky.
What went wrong with Ago?
It just didn’t work the way it was supposed to, and, you know, that’s okay.
Frank Bruni’s review in the Times was particularly tough. That can’t have helped. How important are reviews?
Let’s put it this way: If it got a great review, it’d be a different story.
Do you read your restaurant reviews?
Well, I don’t read everything. But I did read that one.
Does having a celebrity name attached help or hurt?
It can be not such a good thing because they say, “Well, you know, they just want to open a restaurant, it’s a vanity thing.” The food has to really stand on its own.
You live on the Upper West Side now. Are you considering opening a restaurant there?
Sure, if I could find a place. I’ve always liked Tavern on the Green: I remember when I was a kid, I would see movies with it in it, and it’s just a great place. I think it could be terrific.
Are you going to bid on it?
You know I talked to somebody about it. It would have to be under such a good situation with no nonsense and I don’t know, I think it’s too complicated.
Do you consider yourself a foodie?
I’m not a foodie, but I like good food. I have a good appetite. I’m always curious about food from different countries, different cultures. You go to a hotel and all of a sudden they’re giving you Western-style stuff, and I say, “I didn’t come here for this. Where’s the local stuff?”
What food trend do you hate?
One thing that bothers me: You go to a place, and there’s a signature dish, and there’s a new chef or something—and all of sudden, you say, what happened to the thing that was there for all these years? It was a great thing, and if it wasn’t broke, it shouldn’t have been fixed.
Will there be any holdovers from Ago?
I don’t think we got to that point. There were some things, but no, that’s Andrew’s choice.
Speaking of Andrew, what do you look for in a chef?
Well, Nobu—he’s an original. Sometimes you can’t even put your finger on it. The way it looks, the way they put it all together. That’s what I feel about Andrew.
What food can’t you live without?
Where did you eat last night?
Well, I ate at a terrific restaurant, Per Se. It was lunch actually. That’s a beautiful restaurant.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Sometimes peanut butter. Even peanut butter and jelly. Rarely.
Here comes the obligatory death-row question: What would you want for your last meal?
You know, I wouldn’t be thinking about food.
Locanda Verde is at 379 Greenwich St., at N. Moore St.; 212-925-3797.