- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

Can stale reality television revive its flavor? One network is intent on proving that unscripted fare based on entrepreneurial mettle can appease the American appetite.

“The Restaurant” debuts tonight on NBC: six episodes based on the frantic operations of a new Manhattan restaurant — complete with handsome celebrity chef, kitchen disasters, neurotic customers, plucky waiters and Italian-American comfort food.

“Important moments of life take place in a restaurant,” Rocco DiSpirito said in a recent interview. “You get engaged, you break up, you close business deals, you find kindred spirits. I’ve seen all the dramas.”

He is the handsome chef in question here: tall and muscular enough to have been named to People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” list last year, deft enough to be a veteran chef and star of the Food TV Network and late night television. Women literally squeal when they spot him striding about in a spotless white chef jacket and jeans.

“‘Restaurant’ is the new theater,” said Ben Silverman, the show’s Hollywood creator. “That’s what we offer. We’re going to revive storytelling here.”

NBC shot 200 hours of video footage for every hour seen on screen, with roving camera crews plus 24 hidden cameras.

“We’ve got serious continuity from episode to episode,” said NBC spokesman Jim Dowd. “The action is really week to week, and, believe me, it gets pretty soapy.”

The first episodes start slowly but boast remarkable images of Manhattan, flashing chef’s knives, a stove afire and Rocco — snarling, laughing and coddling an adoring public.

“It’s entertainment, a moment in time. We want the audience to take this journey with us,” Mr. DiSpirito said.

“Restaurants have become an integral part of our way of life over the last several decades, so it is not surprising to see the creation of a new TV show about a restaurant,” said Kristin Nolt of the National Restaurant Association. The public is drawn to celebrity chefs, hip food trends and compelling restaurant venues, she said, but she frets that TV could compromise “the unique challenges and rewards” of the business.

“We have no doubt Hollywood will debut a much more dramatic and sensational side to the business in an effort to secure ratings,” she said, “but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, single and charming Mr. DiSpirito, 36, is a publicist’s dream. He’s agreeable to endless marketing and personal appearances. He has two cookbooks coming out this fall and coldly refers to himself and his new restaurant as “the product.”

The product has soul, however, and includes a pink menu awash in old-fashioned Italian-American goodies inspired by Mr. DiSpirito’s mother, Nicolina, a bright-eyed 78 — and “executive chef.”

The menu includes Mama’s Meatballs and Mama’s Fritatta, in contrast to the artful, nouvelle cuisine at Union Pacific, Mr. DiSpirito’s other restaurant.

The return to his traditional family victuals is part of the drama. Once uncomfortable with his immigrant heritage, Mr. DiSpirito said he now embraces the red-sauced pasta of his youth out in suburban Queens, and reveres his mama’s meatballs.

“This project has taught me much,” he said. “I learned my mother is more extraordinary than I ever knew. She is just remarkable.”

The show already has been praised by some reviewers for its portrayal of “normal” Italian-Americans rather than “The Sopranos” gangster variety, which has offended Italian-American ethnic groups in recent years.

Meanwhile, show producer Mark Burnett — who also created “Survivor” — managed to bring “The Restaurant” to the NBC table free of charge through product placement. Logos from Coors and other advertisers are woven seamlessly into the drama, which does indeed include romance, victory, defeat, mozzarella cheese and waiter angst.

“It is good TV,” Mr. DiSpirito said about the show, which airs at 10 p.m. “I’m just feeling the buzz on all this, and it feels great.”

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