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Men You Should Know: Tony May, the Restaurateur Who (Practically) Invented Italian Fine Dining

From left: Richard Grausman, Tony May, Susan Robbins


Long before Mario Batali was a household name, before Lidia Bastianich was the "godmother" of Italian cuisine, and Michael White was the It Boy of New York fine dining, there was Tony May. True, he was never a chef, but as a restaurateur who began his career in America exactly 50 years ago, he paved the way for generations, elevating Italian food at a time when no one imagined it could ever rival French fare.

On Monday night, industry bigwigs gathered at the esteemed C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program) benefit at Chelsea Piers to honor his contributions to the food world—and to chow down on some serious grub.

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Both the guest list and the participating chef lineup read like a who's who of the gastro scene: Drew Nieporent, Daniel Boulud, and Danny Meyer (pictured, from left), as well as Tim Zagat, were among the luminaries grazing on dishes prepared by Michael Lomonaco, Marc Murphy, Marcus Samuelsson, chefs from wd~50, Nobu, Gotham Bar & Grill, Oceana, the Modern, and more than 30 other restaurants. Edgar Bronfman Jr. was one of several people to introduce and lavish praise on May—but who is he exactly?

In 1957, May arrived in New York City from Naples, Italy. He worked at "21" Club and Delmonico, ran the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center (1964-86), and then opened several critically acclaimed restaurants, including Palio (1986), San Domenico NY (1988), Gemelli (1997), PastaBreak (1998) at the World Trade Center, and SD-26 (2009). Many a famous chef honed his chops under Tony's tutelage. Andrew Carmellini (Laconda Verde, the Dutch), Marc Vetri (Vetri, Amis, Osteria), and Scott Conant (Scarpetta) are among his illustrious alumni. According to Marisa May, Tony's daughter and co-owner of SD-26, her dad was also one of the first restaurateurs to serve olive-oil ice cream and baby goat in New York (it's worth noting here that much of what passed for authentic Italian cuisine in the past century was of the red-sauce variety, more Italo-American than European).

In the end, the C-CAP gala raised more than $900,000 for the national nonprofit organization—ultimately helping underprivileged kids get a start in the culinary world. And Tony's already moved on to the next charitable event; he flew out to Pebble Beach for an annual golf tournament benefiting the NRA (National Restaurant Association) and raising money for more food-school scholarships.

—James Oliver Cury, online editorial projects manager at Details

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Also on Details.com:
Where to Eat in 2013
The Best Road Trips for Foodies
Where the Chefs Eat: 10 World-Famous Chefs Share Their Favorite Restaurants

Photos: Tony May with award by MenWhoDine; Drew Nieporent, Daniel Boulud, and Danny Meyer by James Oliver Cury
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