After his heart problems last fall, Tommy Macaluso is lean and maybe a little less mean.

Big Mac Attack 

After his heart problems last fall, Tommy Macaluso is lean and maybe a little less mean.

It's been nearly three years since I reviewed the robustly rotund restaurateur Tommy Macaluso's Macaluso's on 39th ("The Tom Tom Club," April 11, 2002). Although I enjoyed my experience there, I realized recently that I hadn't set foot in the place since my review was in print. Why not, I wondered? I liked the food, loved the service and could even tolerate the noise level in the tiny dining room.

I always appreciated Macaluso's excessive personality, but I wasn't a cult follower like many of the restaurant's regulars. Besides, I just assumed that, like all Kansas City dining institutions, Macaluso and his restaurant would always be around. Then, this past autumn, I heard from mutual friends that Macaluso had been hospitalized. Rumors started flying: Would he close his restaurant? Would he retire?

A lot of local restaurants could easily survive if their owners were never seen in the dining room, but Macaluso's loses much of its vitality when Macaluso isn't there. Some of the restaurant's detractors admit that, although chef Scott Warren's food is consistently fabulous, the mercurial owner has driven them crazy. I still hear stories about customers who won't return for another helping of Macaluso's wrath. For example, there's the one about a junior-level business executive who complained that Macaluso was the rudest restaurant owner he'd ever met -- this businessman thought that if he dropped names all over the place, Macaluso would fawn all over him. He discovered, however, that the indomitable Macaluso did not suffer fools gladly.

Rather, Macaluso is infamous for his late-night phone calls to customers who didn't show up for their reservations. Over the years he has yelled, screamed at and humiliated customers who raised his hackles -- typically with a lack of proper restaurant etiquette -- with a flurry of hilarious insults. Long before he charged through his own dining room, he bossed around patrons at the even tinier Nabil's on Broadway, where he operated as manager, waiter, bartender, dishwasher and occasional cook.

Macaluso maintains that he's never lived up to his so-called reputation. "Contrary to what a lot of people think, I do not provoke battles," he says. "I jump into them if a customer is offending me or my staff."

Macaluso's devotion to his staff -- most of the employees have worked there for seven years or more -- is another reason the restaurant has been so successful. "I know we're not on the cutting edge," Macaluso says, "but I think our food is very good and people like the fact that we've had the same chef and the same waiters for many years. It's a comfort zone."

Last October, though, things got severely uncomfortable for Macaluso.

"I knew something bad was coming long before I went into the hospital," says the 54-year-old New York native, who had returned to his two-pack-a-day Marlboro Light habit. "I was always so fatigued and not feeling well. And one day, it just clicked and I was in a hospital bed." He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. "They drained 50 pounds of fluid off my heart in 8 days," says Macaluso, who swears he'll never light up again. He's thinner by at least 40 pounds, and he's spending fewer hours in the restaurant.

But patrons can see him in all of his blustery glory during the early evening, when he's on hand to greet (and occasionally still insult) his guests.

As it turns out, the 12-year-old restaurant still operates the way it has since Macaluso opened the doors in 1993.

On two recent visits, I brought along friends who had never been to Macaluso's. They got it right away, for different reasons. Bonnie, an actress, loved Macaluso's bravado. "He should have been onstage," she said. But the dining room is his stage set -- the tastefully framed oil paintings, crisp white tablecloths and twinkling candles are merely a genteel backdrop for his brassy bawdiness.

"This is what you want a neighborhood restaurant to look like," Bonnie said as she dipped a crunchy curl of calamari into an orange swirl of rémoulade sauce. She had come with my friends Bob and Peter. Bob was busy buttering a hunk of warm baguette he'd unwrapped from a napkin.

The current winter menu, which Macaluso and Warren plan to keep around until the weather warms up, is a culinary "greatest hits" from the past decade: five pasta courses that diners can order in half or full portions, a superb rack of lamb, a juicy Kansas City strip and -- back by popular decree -- a pan-seared duckling with a luscious cranberry-port reduction.

"With Tom gone from the restaurant, I picked up some of his responsibilities, too, so I toned down the menu quite a bit," Warren says. He returned to the venue's simpler roots, abandoning the more elaborate menu introduced last summer.

After our salads arrived, we all discreetly watched a couple on their first date. The male spent the entire meal looking at his handsome reflection in one of the mirrored walls. "Narcissists make the worst mates," Peter concluded a few minutes later as he offered me a taste of his glorious dijon-crusted lamb. I could have spent the whole meal staring at the beauty of my tender, moist Long Island duck, beautifully served on a bed of three-cheese risotto, but instead I happily ate the thing.

Bonnie's only complaint was that once the cozy dining room filled up, the noise increased to a deafening roar. "I can't hear what everyone's saying," she announced between ladylike bites of that night's special, a flaky sea bass in a supple beurre-blanc-and-port-wine reduction perched on a mound of seasoned lentils. Specifically, she couldn't hear what Bob was gossiping about with Macaluso between bites of his fork-tender veal-loin medallions swathed in a morel-mushroom demi-glace.

Luckily for all of us, the signature desserts here, including a silken chocolate mousse topped with a dollop of Kahlua whipped cream, were far more decadent than the gossip.

I returned a few nights later with Bob and perpetual party girl Jennifer, who had heard of Macaluso's and had even driven by it. "I guess I was waiting for someone to bring me here on a date," she said.

"Life is too short for that," advised Bob, who couldn't decide which appetizer sounded most sinful. We let the handsome server, David Petty, decide for us. He brought out an order of plump shrimp scampi, coquettishly arranged in a creamy, jade-colored garlic-pesto sauce, along with a half-portion of the menu's richest pasta dish, split three ways.

Even that prudent portion of fettuccine -- tossed with chicken, onion and shiitake mushrooms in a thick blue-cheese cream sauce -- was almost too much to finish, but we forged ahead, nearly spoiling our appetites for the main event: a thick slab of salmon crusted with crunchy crushed pine nuts and topped with an aromatic sauce made with pesto and mussels for Jennifer; a thick grilled Kansas City strip blanketed with caramelized onion burgundy sauce for Bob; and for me, chef Warren's variation on spicy puttanesca, the tomato-and-caper sauce generously laden with shrimp, Italian sausage and a fluffy ball of goat cheese.

After all that, dessert seemed like overkill. Cocktail-coveting Jennifer even turned down one of Macaluso's drink inventions, a "Snackaluso," made with raspberry vodka, Kahlua, Godiva chocolate liqueur and Bailey's Irish Cream. Still, the idea of a simple yet sensual vanilla-caramel flan appealed to her, and she ordered one. Bob voted again for chocolate mousse, served on this night as two perfectly molded mounds, like bountiful breasts.

Macaluso stood at the bar -- which is now totally nonsmoking -- watching customers walk in, reserving effusive greetings for his chosen favorites.

He says he feels better than he has in years. "I made the decision I want to stick around for a while."

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