The family circus at ‘Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven’

When people in Los Angeles speak of Cirque, they are usually refering to the new-style circus from the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil. Yet in New York City, Le Cirque is a much older tradition and Andrew Rossi’s documentary, “Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven” is about just that.

This lively portrait of a NYC culinary institution follows Le Cirque founder Sirio Maccioni and his three sons as they close their doors at the Palace Hotel on New Year’s Eve 2004, and prepare for a grand re-opening in New York’s Bloomberg building two years later.

Sirio Maccioni was born in Italy and at 78 he’s still a man who wants to be in command: A captain of a restaurant and a king with three princes, Mario, Marco and Mauro,  waiting to rule their own kingdoms. In 2004, he published an autobiography, “Sirio: The Story of My Life and Le Cirque.” You might wonder why an Italian who married an Italian woman, Egidiana, has a restaurant with a French name, serving French food. It has to do with the era and snob appeal, he explains in the film.

Many eras and decades have passed and with the changing times, tastes and manners have changed. Yet one sees clearly in this movie, that Sirio isn’t quite ready to let the guard change and a new reign to begin.  When his Le Cirque closed at the Palace Hotel, and moved to to the Bloomberg building on East 58th Street, Sirio butted heads with his princes on how and what the new restaurant should be. He even consults former Secretary of State and faithful customer Henry Kissinger.  This move and the beginning spread of his empire is detailed in this documentary.

Besides Kissinger, Le Cirque customers include Tony Bennett, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Cosby, Robert DeNiro, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Billy Joel, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart. The title is derived from Sirio’s request for a table in heaven to the pope.  You’d be tempted to go just for star-gazing if not for the Martha Stewart seal of approval. Yet as his sons point out, this is old money and to survive, Le Cirque must attract new money and a new generation.

The first version of Le Cirque opened in 1974 at the Mayfair Hotel and only moved to the Palace in 1997.  Le Cirque had already expanded to Las Vegas (Bellagio Hotel) as  at the time of this documentary and has also extended its reach into Mexico City, the Dominican Republic and New Delphi. There are also Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and in New York City (Sixth and Seventh avenues).

The struggle between Sirio and his sons shows how difficult a family business can be, even when there is love, there is also enormous frustration that can erupt in unlovely anger. This is an Italian family and sometimes they don’t censor their words. Rossi shows us an intimate portrait of a feuding foodie family and instead of showing us chefs, we see the restauranteur who must worry about the business end instead of just creating food worthy of a few stars from the critics.

“Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven” is available for instant streaming on Netflix, or you can purchase the DVD at First Run Features as a single DVD or as part of a four documentary set: Culinary Masterpieces: Four Great Foodie Films special edition box set. The set includes a documentary about the young chef who temporarily headed the restaurant that opened up to replace Le Cirque at the Palace Hotel. This adds a balance between the artistry of the chefs and the business side of restaurants.

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