Can a Restaurant’s Secret Ingredient Be… Wallpaper?

The Missing Ingredient film

The interior décor of Gino’s restaurant in New York City became iconic for its unique zebra motif wallpaper. The pattern later took on a life of its own.

In 1945, Gino of Capri restaurant opened on the Upper East Side of New York City. It quickly became an institution with regular bold-face customers, who included the likes of Ed Sullivan, Frank Sinatra, and the fashion set. Gino’s had it all – good food, great company, and a certain cachet that kept it hot for decades. What was owner Gino Circiello’s secret ingredient for keeping that prestige in tact in a city where thousands of restaurants go under every year? There were many, from its red sauce to its homey atmosphere to its iconic wallpaper.

Yes, that’s right, wallpaper. Gino became famous partly for its décor. In the otherwise plain space, zebras leapt of the blood-red walls, chased by arrows in a now-iconic pattern that design lovers will surely recognize. The motif, which was sketched by a friend as an homage to the restaurateur’s passion for hunting, was printed on wallpaper and hung in Gino’s dining room.

Decades later, the pattern was immortalized in films including The Royal Tennenbaums and Mighty Aphrodite. It saw another resurgence around 2010, when celebrated textiles house Scalamandré reissued the wallpaper, then entered into licensing agreements that lent the pattern to vases, china, dog beds, napkins, pillows, bedding, umbrellas, and more. (Though accounts vary, the print was reportedly not manufactured by Scalamandré until the 1970s, after Gino’s original wallpaper was ruined in a fire.) Kate Spade and Barneys used it in retail installations. Suddenly a print that was never meant to be seen outside of Gino’s was everywhere.

Gino’s closed around that same time, but Pescatore, another Italian restaurant not far away, was looking to reinvent itself in the face of declining profits. It had great service and excellent food, but something just wasn’t clicking. Could it be…the wallpaper? Pescatore owner Charles Devigne thought so, and embarked on a journey to paste his walls with Gino’s now famous print. Outraged detractors, loyal staff, and regulars of Gino’s cried foul, and serious drama ensued.

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The Missing Ingredient documentary poster
Director Michael Sparaga smelled the controversy wafting out of the kitchen, and proceeded to document the unusual intersection of the two restaurants. The resulting film, The Missing Ingredient, seeks to find out just what it is that makes a restaurant an institution. The documentary, which will be screened in Newport tomorrow evening by NewportFILM in conjunction with the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival, has been called “the ’20 Feet from Stardom’ of foodie flicks.”

We caught up with filmmaker (and one-time waiter) Michael Sparaga, who will be on hand tomorrow night alongside Charles Devigne, to ask him about the restaurant biz, delicious food, and those iconic zebras.

Scalamandré’s zebra wallpaper has become a design icon. What is so compelling across generations about this design?
The zebra pattern is bold and playful. You see it, and no matter if you’re young or old or somewhere in between, it immediately puts a smile on your face. To me, that should be the ultimate objective of décor: to make you feel good. And the pattern is also timeless. Although it was originally custom designed for Gino’s restaurant in 1945 and it certainly has a retro vibe, somehow it also feels like it could’ve been designed yesterday.

I think Scalamandré has done an incredible job marketing the zebra pattern in recent years. From 1945 to 2010, it existed on the walls of Gino’s and nowhere else. They owned the copyright. If you wanted Scalamandré to recreate the wallpaper, you needed Gino’s permission. Since Gino’s closed, though, that pattern is now readily available. It’s not just on wallpaper, it’s also on fabric and on umbrellas and place settings and tote bags and a multitude of other items. That’s especially incredible when you discover that there were no thoughts of longevity behind its design. It just goes to show that you can’t plan these things.

An interesting side note: Scalamandré didn’t design the wallpaper, they were only hired to recreate it after it was damaged by a kitchen fire in the early 1970s. It was actually designed by Valentino Crescenzi, a friend of the three original owners of Gino’s. He knew Gino himself liked to hunt so he drew him prancing zebras with flying arrows and the rest is history.

The reaction from some of Gino’s patrons to Pescatore’s reuse of the wallpaper is one of shock and, often, anger – some even call it “plagiarism.” It reminds me of some recent debates about cultural appropriation. It’s that what’s at issue here, even within the same culture?
Yes, I think that’s certainly part of the issue. Gino’s regulars went to Gino’s for multiple generations. Some went 7 days a week. Some went twice a day. Gino’s was more than just their restaurant, it was an extension of their living space. As far as they’re concerned, those zebras belong to Gino’s and they don’t want to see another restaurant use them to try to capitalize on Gino’s success. And to a certain extent, that’s what Pescatore was trying to do. That said, I think proximity also had something to do with it. If Pescatore was in Wichita I don’t think it would have been an issue. But Pescatore is only a few blocks away from Gino’s. It would be like another restaurant a few blocks away from 21 Club putting antique toys on their ceiling.

I read that you once worked in the restaurant business yourself, as a waiter. Where did you work, and what did you love and hate most about serving?

I worked for 15 years as a waiter and I actually liked serving for the most part. It was social. It was fast-paced. It taught me how to multitask and deal with a wide variety of different personalities. Those are skills I use everyday as a filmmaker. Of course, dealing with some of those personalities can be a bit taxing. There are some miserable people out there. When they go out to a restaurant, they treat serving staff with contempt. I liked to think that they didn’t have any real power in their lives, so bossing a waiter around made them feel big. I also liked to think that they got into a fender bender on their way home.

As for places I worked, I’m from Toronto so most of the places where I worked are in Toronto, but I also lived in New York for a short period in the early 2000s and the restaurant I worked at was…Pescatore. That’s actually how I met the film’s main subject, Charles Devigne, and why I knew he would make a fascinating subject for a film. Whether you agree with Charles’s decision to use the zebra wallpaper in Pescatore, you can’t deny that he’s a charming, talented, and thoughtful restaurateur. He cares about every detail of his restaurant. I only worked at Pescatore for a year, but I learned a lot from Charles.

One cool thing about working in the food industry – whether you’re in the kitchen or making a film about it – is that it’s universal: Everyone has to eat. So when we collectively fall in love with a restaurant, are we more in love with the food or the culture and people that surround it?
To love a restaurant, I think people need a combination of all those elements. They have to work together, and they have to work together consistently over multiple visits. You need to know how a place makes you feel before you love it. If you love the food, but find that the staff is incompetent and the lights are too bright and the clientele is bothersome, then you likely won’t love the restaurant. It’ll just be a place you might go for takeout.

What’s your favorite Italian dish?
Until a few years ago, I would have said pizza, but one of the bonuses of making this movie was that I got to have a Gino’s meal prepared for me by Gino’s now retired chef, Michael Miele. One of the dishes he made was Rigatoni al Segreto. Segreto sauce (a.k.a. “secret sauce”) is Gino’s signature red sauce. My interviewees would talk about it with saliva dripping out of the corner of their mouths. Once I tried it myself, I understood why. That stuff is liquid gold!

“The Missing Ingredient” will be screened Thursday, September 22 at Rosecliff Ballroom. A pre-film reception begins at 6 p.m.; the screening begins at 7. Tickets are $35. Go to newportFILM for more details.

Scalamandré’s zebra print remains incredibly popular. The textile and wallcoverings giant continues to print the motif on wallpaper, including this to-die-for version on grasscloth (1). Etched cocktail glasses (2) and place settings (6) are made by Lenox. These Buffet and cocktails napkins (3) are available locally at Chateau and Bungalow and add flair to any party. Stubbs & Wootton embroidered the pattern on these hard-to-get vintage loafers (4). Add a safari-like sentiment to your home with a zebra-print pillow (5).

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

1 Comment

  • Reply September 22, 2016

    Sharon Fahy

    Great article Meg. Love that the design came from An Italian restaurant in NYC.

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