Byline: MERLE GINSBERG
Pino Luongo didn't make me," Mark Strausman is saying proudly at a table in his new restaurant, Campagna. "I know he says that, but no -- my mother made me. He shouldn't take that away from an old Jewish lady."
It's clear Strausman has a sense of humor hearty enough to match his appetite and his cooking talents. The former chef of Il Cantinori, Sapore di Mare and Coco Pazzo has just thrown open the wide doors on East 21st Street, and already both The Fast and The Foodies have flooded in. And while Luongo -- the master of Manhattan's Italian restaurants -- is reportedly feeling competitive, so is Queens-born Strausman.
"I studied at the great hotels of Europe," he says, "and I think being American you have an advantage in an Italian restaurant. We can enjoy the best of southern Italy and northern Italy; we don't have blinders, like the Europeans. Also, being Jewish, you have this innate business sense, and running a restaurant is not just about being chef. Strausman wanders the room at night like an Italian mama, meeting and greeting and making everybody feel at home.
"You go to a restaurant in New York and you could choke to death and no one would come over. You'd have to give yourself the Heimlich maneuver! I want to see what's up at the tables. If there's something wrong, I'll make you another dish. At Sapore, Bianca Jagger once sent a dish back five times. Finally, I came out and said, 'What do you want? I'll make it just for you.' She never sent anything back again."
Not the least of the reasons Strausman wanted to open his own place was to avoid the snootiness of some of his former habitats. "At one restaurant, Ralph Lauren came in with shorts on, and they said they wouldn't seat him unless he put some chef's pants on! I told him when I opened my own restaurant he could wear what he wants. The kind of pretension that went on in some of these places would never happen in Italy."