I visited for a potentially last meal and discovered that the buzz around Gino's today is: Don't believe everything you read--we're working it out.
On Lexington at 61st since 1945, Gino's has survived other close calls in recent years. In 2006, they almost closed due to a strike, but managed to work it out. When the economy tanked, they talked of closing early in 2009, but they survived.
The restaurant was founded by Gino Circiello in a New York that has almost vanished completely.
As the Times wrote for his obituary in 2001, his restaurant "epitomized the New York of the time when men still wore hats and a plate of spaghetti went for 95 cents. It was where Ed Sullivan ordered the same chicken dish every day and then spread out his papers on a table to work through the afternoon. Each Mother's Day, Frank Sinatra brought a dozen people to the big table in the back."
In the 1970s, according to a fantastic 1977 article in New York Magazine, the place held on to its glamor, its tables filled with "willowy women," "movie execs," aides to Howard Hughes and Aristotle Onassis, and writers like Gay Talese, who still frequents the place today.
Talese drinks Sambuca and counts the zebras on the walls. In his book A Writer's Life he wrote that Gino's is "dwelling in a time capsule created in the postwar 1940s." And to that 1977 New York he said, "The first sophisticated young woman I met in New York took me [to Gino's]."
The zebras have been leaping across the walls from the beginning, though they've been replaced with replicas over the years. Why zebras? Because, Gino told New York magazine, "We didn't want the usual view of Mount Vesuvius."
He also explained the reason why they don't cover the exposed water pipes: "We could hide the pipes, but no! The public is a slave to habit. You change a pipe and something is wrong with the food. This is a landmark. It never changes."
True enough. Today, the pipes remain exposed, the zebras still dance across the walls, the wooden payphone stands by the bar, and in the coat closet, behind the hatcheck girl, there are actual hats on the shelf.
Men and women (but mostly men, gray-haired and Italian) sit around the bar talking about Italy and about food. They're not willowy and they're not movie executives. They're older and they have other concerns, like health insurance. Here's a snippet of a recently overheard conversation:
Husband: If you can't get insurance to pay for a malignant lesion, what can you get it to pay for?
Wife: An undertaker.
Let's hope an undertaker is not in the cards for Gino's, as they survive at least another month and, if the reassuring buzz on site is true, into the years beyond.