For more than a generation, fine dining on Long Island was synonymous with one restaurant and one man.
The restaurant was Pappagallo, which opened in Glen Cove and later in Glen Head. The owner and host, who helped popularize northern Italian fare, was Mario Ghini.
“The Italian kitchen is not a specific recipe . . . it’s a very versatile cuisine,” Ghini said in a Newsday interview in 2015. He added, however, “To me, it was always to give people whatever they liked.”
Ghini died last month at 83 in Florida, where he’d intended to retire. A a couple of years after having moved there, Ghini returned to his profession with three successful Italian restaurants.
In recent years, he was known for the preparation of antipasti, and for his deft hand at the Berkel prosciutto slicer at Limoncello restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens.
“He got tired of being retired,” said his son, Robert, who succeeded his father at Limoncello with his brother, Victor. Robert Ghini runs Barcello, a New American restaurant in North Palm Beach.
On Long Island, Pappagallo, named after a restaurant in Bologna, was the epicenter of northern Italian and continental cuisines from its opening in 1969 until Mario Ghini sold it in 1993.
“His restaurant was different from anybody else’s,” said Elio Sobrero, a longtime friend and restaurateur both on Long Island and in Florida. “He was the one who brought Italian restaurants to Long Island” at a time when Italian eateries often were identified only by “spaghetti on the side.”
“He helped raise the bar for Long Island restaurants,” said former Newsday editor Anthony E. Insolia. “Mario expected things to be perfect. The food was excellent . . . and Mario himself was such a pleasant host and would make all feel welcome. He was a very generous man. It always felt good to walk through those doors.”
Veterans of Ghini’s staff at Pappagallo went on to own their own celebrated restaurants, which included La Pace in Glen Cove, La Capannina in Northport, Capriccio in Jericho, and Sobrero’s La Primavera in East Hills. It would be famously headlined “The Mario Network.”
“He inspired lots of Italians to open their own places on Long Island,” said Sobrero, who worked with Ghini and in 1980 established La Primavera. Sobrero now is at Tiramisu in Tequesta, Florida.
Ghini was born in Bologna. His apprenticeship in the hospitality business included kitchen work at The Savoy hotel in London as well as on cruise ships — including one that was docked in Havana in 1959 when dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s forces.
Ghini came to the United States a year later and worked in Manhattan restaurants, including Giambelli and Le Club. “He always had in mind that he wanted to open a restaurant,” Robert Ghini said.
In 1969, Pappagallo opened on School Street in Glen Cove, in a restaurant space attached to a bar. Two years later, Mario Ghini relocated to a small building on Glen Head Road in Glen Head. By 1976, he’d built the contemporary, dramatically designed octagonal restaurant at 716 Glen Cove Ave., also in Glen Head, that became a local landmark.
Diners would find steak au poivre and filet mignon Rossini; capon sauced with white grapes and roast duck finished with apples, raspberries and orange sauce; seafood crepes and grouper Grenobloise; paglia e fieno with shrimp marinara and tortelloni stuffed with porcini mushrooms. The dessert cart was a multitiered showcase that included blushing fruit tarts, chocolate velvet cake, chocolate mousse and zuppa inglese.
Ghini sponsored monthly opera performances at the restaurant, and it was likely that your conversations with him would be about food and music.
Many diners from Pappagallo continued to visit the family’s Florida restaurants,’ Robert Ghini said. “He was working at Limoncello the night that he passed away.”
Mario Ghini is survived by his sons and his wife of 55 years, Alice.