"Where is this restaurant again?" she asked.
"At the corner of 39th and Mercier," I said. "You know, where Macaluso's used to be."
"I hope he hired an exorcist first," my friend sniffed before quickly changing the subject.
Oh, God, I thought. I had forgotten that this friend, like several people I know, doesn't have fond memories of Tommy Macaluso, the not-always-convivial owner of the restaurant formerly known as Macaluso's. I couldn't remember what temperamental Tommy had done or said to my friend, but she's not the only person who has sworn bitterly never again to set foot in 1403 West 39th Street.
One waiter at Scotty's told me that Macaluso had been banned from working in the dining room. "He ran off too many customers," the server whispered.
In fact, Macaluso's had plenty of loyal regulars who adored the gravel-voiced New York native.
Warren is tactful when it comes to his former boss. "I can't say enough good things about Tommy," he told me. "I worked for him for 14 years. He helped me put my kids through school. But I had to tell him I didn't want him working in the front of the restaurant after I took over. This is my restaurant now, not Macaluso's with new paint."
This venue now reflects the taste and talents of Warren and no one else. After purchasing the business last spring, Warren set about turning the dark and intimate old dining room into a sunny, bigger space. Doing much of the construction work with a few friends, Warren removed an interior wall, doubling the size of the main dining room. His brother-in-law removed the tiny bar at the entrance and replaced it with a larger wrap-around bar. They ripped ugly grass cloth off the walls and painted them in shades of mossy green and vivid melon. Then Warren hired a new crew of young, attractive servers, including the dynamic Desiree Stone (Café Maison's former owner), who was working as both waitress and bartender on one of my visits and never missed a beat.
If the kitchen isn't too busy, Warren will occasionally walk through the dining room to check on things — something he never would have done in this restaurant's prior incarnation. Unlike the loud, larger-than-life Macaluso, Warren is somewhat retiring and shy. In fact, the first time I saw him loping through the Scotty's dining room, I wasn't sure who he was because I'd seen him so rarely. (I even worked at a midtown restaurant with his ex-wife — but that was nearly 20 years ago, and I probably wouldn't recognize her, either.)
The best way to get a fresh perspective on Scotty's, I figured, was to bring some friends who had never dined at Macaluso's and would have no memories, good or bad. But after Cathy, Dan, their teenage daughter, Julia, and I were seated at a linen-draped table, Cathy made a confession. "Technically, we never actually ate at Macaluso's. But we did walk in one night for dinner, and we got such a bad vibe that we walked right out."
They loved the look of the new place, and once they started eating, there was no more talk of vibes. We shared a starter of superb bacon-wrapped scallops. Warren splashes them with a punchy Korean barbecue sauce and grills them over hickory, pecan and cherry-wood embers, as he does for most of the meat and seafood here. Cathy was startled by the decadent richness of our other appetizer, a molten wedge of baked explorateur cheese — a gorgeously fattening triple-cream French fromage named for the first U.S. satellite, Explorer. It's wonderful, spread on a hunk of bread, but after a couple of bites, I was in outer space, all right; it's almost too rich to eat.