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David Lissner
for restaurants

The last Chicago maitre d’

Arturo Petterino in his heyday.

Arturo Petterino in his heyday.

One more bit of elegance vanished from the world Tuesday.

The Sun-Times reported the death of Arturo Petterino.

If you’re under 50 and you know the name, chances are it’s because of Petterino’s, the Theatre District restaurant named in his honor by his one-time boss, Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

But if you’re of a certain age, you’ll likely remember the tall and dignified Petterino directing the front of the house during his long stint as maitre d’ at the Gold Coast’s storied Pump Room, or before that at the erstwhile Chez Paree, 610 N. Fairbanks Court. A Chicago native, he also worked at the Copacabana in New York City, the Fontainbleau in Miami Beach and El Rancho in Las Vegas.

To my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), no one in Chicago currently officially holds the title maitre d’hotel (“master of the house”), a calling that originated in medieval courts. Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, these dapper, tuxedo- or tailcoat-clad men oversaw the dining rooms of important restaurants and were often more famous than the chefs.

The profession encompassed dining-room manager, staff supervisor, greeter, host, headwaiter, tableside chef, sommelier and psychologist. Maitre d’s remembered the names and preferences of regulars, lavished attention on celebrities, soothed unhappy patrons and did everything to keep connections running smoothly between the kitchen and dining room.

Petterino made a career of it, seating perhaps a half million diners over his 40-year-career. One of the first things Melman did when he took over the Pump Room in 1976 was to reinstall Petterino, whose presence instantly added a cachet that the proprietors of hippie hangout R.J. Grunts might not otherwise have achieved.

“I’m the last of the legends,” Petterino said in the 1990s. “Oscar of the Waldorf is dead. So is the Copa’s [Joe] Lopez.”

While plans for the Pump Room and the Ambassador East hotel in which it’s situated are in flux, new owner Ian Schrager has said he’ll likely keep the famous restaurant’s name alive. It’s unlikely, though, that we’ll ever again see the glamour of the days when Petterino led the likes of Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant to tables and columnist Irv Kupcinet reigned from Booth One.