A Host Who’s Seen it All

The owner of Gabriel’s welcomes us into his dining room

  • Gabriel’s opened on the Upper West Side in 1991, when the neighborhood was a much different place.

As a New York City restaurant owner for over two decades, Gabriel Aiello has seen everything from an unruly customer being taken away in handcuffs to a chef hurling a spoon at a waiter.

He has also seen everyone. His namesake restaurant, Gabriel’s, on West 60th between Broadway and Columbus, welcomes guests from Oprah to Mark Cuban to Martin Scorsese. Mitt Romney decided to run for President over lunch at Gabriel’s, and last year, Mayor Bloomberg visited with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

The 125-seat Italian eatery has been a neighborhood mainstay since it opened in December of 1991. It’s Aiello’s pleasant personality and care for his customers that keep everyone coming back. Over a plate of fusilli with chicken in a vodka tomato sauce, he dished on star-studded events in the restaurant’s private party room, a typical work day, and his favorite lamb chops.

What is your background in the industry?

My first restaurant job was as a banquet waiter at Fiesta in Lodi, New Jersey. They really taught you how to be a good waiter and stressed service even though it was a cheesy place, a wedding facility. They kept your tips and you just got paid by the hour. I worked there for about five months and then got a job at Café Look See in Fort Lee, New Jersey as a waiter. And three days later, the owner asked me to be the maître d’ and manager, and I had never done that before. I had gone to school for restaurant management, so I took it very seriously. I studied the menu and figured out how to buy. After three or four years of that, I left and opened up a 230-seat Mexican restaurant called Arriba in Union City, New Jersey. A year from the day I opened, I had to give the keys back to the landlord because it tanked. I had on my business card, “Only tell your best friends.” No one told anybody. [Laughs]

So you didn’t give up after that?

I did give up. I left and lived in Spain for a few months. When I came back to the United States, I ran into a friend of mine, Leo, who was from Italy and worked at Look See. He was opening up an Italian restaurant in Tribeca called Arqua, and asked me to run it. It became an instant success. Literally two weeks after it opened, it was booming. I worked there for about four years as a maître d’ and manager. I worked six double shifts, and only had Sundays off. He wouldn’t give me another day off. I quit and spent about two years looking for locations, found this one broker, and this was the first thing he showed me.

Was Gabriel’s an instant success?

The country was in a bit of a recession back then in ’91. During the first two weeks we were open, we were getting our sea legs and then Bryan Miller came in from the New York Times. We were making our own smoked cheeses and he did a Diner’s Journal saying, “The goat cheese had more smoke than a coal locomotive.” That was kind of a knife to the heart. Then we had a good review in the New York Observer and New York magazine. Gourmet magazine did a nice piece on us in early 1992. And then the New York Times came back and Bryan Miller loved it. He gave us a glowing two-star review and we were off to the races.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Usually I get here between eight and nine a.m. Before I unlock the door, I look on the sidewalk because there are some homeless issues here. I come in the door and grind the coffee. I also check the restrooms just to make sure everything’s there. Then I usually do my Board of Health inspection. I check all the refrigerators’ temperatures. I look behind doors. I make sure everyone has on hats and gloves. Even though we have an A and we’ve had one, you never know, they could walk in at any point, and you want to be ready. Then I usually get hit with someone not showing up or something not working. Then the rest of my day is dealing with private parties and reservations. I do all the parties here. We have a side room that can hold up to 36 people and have had over 6,000 events here. Everything from Oprah’s philanthropy board meeting to my son’s fifth birthday party.

What are your favorite dishes on the menu?

I love the burrata with basil oil and Vidalia onion jam with roasted peppers or tomatoes, depending on the season. The spicy mussel soup is fantastic here. The arugula salad with shavings of parmesan cheese is also one of my favorites. All of the pasta we make here, so they’re all fantastic. My favorites right now would probably be the fettuccini with homemade veal sauce with tomato and peppers and the tagliatelle Bolognese. The lasagna changes on a daily basis. Our tuna is one of my favorites and the lamb chops marinated in grape seed oil and mint, wood-grilled and topped with an organic honey truffle oil with spicy scalloped potatoes and broccolini. And we make our own ice cream and sorbet.

I read that story about how a customer didn’t want to pay and you had to lock him inside and call the police.

Well we had to get the police here. It was a $3300.00 check. We have a food and beverage minimum for the room and he thought it was all you could eat and drink for that much. So they went over the minimum by $1000.00 because they were eating and drinking and taking stuff home. It wasn’t so much that he didn’t want to pay, but his daughter had told him that was the policy. He didn’t want to wait for the police so we locked him in and the police came and made him pay.

You have many celebrities eating here. Why do you think they choose your restaurant?

I think it’s because this is owner operated and they know, for the most part, that no one is going to bother them. The location’s also pretty convenient. Soon after we opened, they threw the 50th birthday for Martin Scorsese here and I think that was really the start of that industry knowing us and liking us. We get a big kick out of Sting or Oprah. Oprah is very nice. We get all the news guys too. Everyone’s nice.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

What a growth spurt. I mean, when I opened here, it was the Wild West. It was us and Café Luxembourg. It was a dark street, the Coliseum, where the Time Warner Center is now, was shut down. The Coliseum didn’t really light up until 2004, so we were here 13 years before that happened. The only time they’d light it up would be on St. Patty’s Day for the Shamrock Society. They’d invite all the cops for corned beef and cabbage and beer. And then they would all come in here. Otherwise, we had zero benefit from the Coliseum.

Tell us a funny restaurant story.

We had a situation where we had a very elegant woman at the bar asking for items that we offer at the bar to be wrapped to go. She was eating at the bar, but she wanted more olives and more butter, then asked for bread to be wrapped. She walked out and didn’t pay, so my maître d’ brought her back in, and we called the police. The police came and she said she paid and we proved that she didn’t. And the police officer said, “Please. And you need to leave a tip as well.” And then she stood on the ledge of the bar and with a fork, started banging the overhead glass lights and yelling to a full restaurant, “The salmon sucks. The salmon sucks.” And she didn’t even have salmon. Everyone started applauding; it was very uncomfortable. And then the police put handcuffs on her and took her away.

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