It's the stuff of novels: growing up during the Depression, the poor Italian kid from Brooklyn sells Cokes from a pushcart, hiding under his bed in humiliation when nuns bring food to his family on Thanksgiving; today, at 54, he's "a millionaire twice over," principal owner of one of Washington's poshest French restaurants, the Rive Gauche, and the man behind hundreds of other restaurants in the Washington area.
That's the story of Tony Greco, a restaurant mogul known only by others in his business until last month. That's when news of his opening four eateries next to the White House in the new Federal Home Loan Bank building (incorrectly referred to last week as the Federal Reserve headquarters in the Suspicions section of this column) caused a furor of controversy. Greco - whose charming manner can't quite conceal a tough, impatient personality - is beginning to relish the publicity.
"I always kept a low profile," Greco says, "until a few weeks ago when it dawned on me that the greatest restaurants were named after personalities - Toots Shor, Duke Zeibert, Sherman Billingsley. So I said, 'Why am I hiding myself when I'm a great restaurateur, too?' In 1973 I was a little hesitant about Rive Gauche losing its business because a little Brooklyn shoe shine boy, me, took over, I thought it would hurt business, and most of my decisions are based on business."
Most of those decisions have been shrewd. The Brooklyn shoeshine boy settled in Washington after the war and learned the refrigeration business. That led to selling restaurant kitchen equipment. Then he sold other supplies to restaurants, eventually stocking evverything from the tablecloths to the overs. His designers and carpenters created entire dining rooms and kitchens; he helped build and finance such places as Tiberio, Le Bagatelle, The Big Cheese, Le Steak, Harvey's and other spots. Greco survived in a rough industry in which the volatile combination of ego and money can lead to failure more easily than success.
"In '75 I had a heart attack, and I went into retirement," Greco says. "But I got so bored . . . I'm driven, not for the money, just to do it. I've been working 15 hours a day the last two months."
For all that work Greco has been getting gripes that a disco (The Buck Stops Here) and a swanky French restaurant (Maison Blanche) don't belong in a government building.
Greco came out from the background swinging, facing the TV cameras, reeling off lines such as, "We'll make so much money I might wipe out the national debt," and, "I'm going to stay here until doomsday. I have a 20-year lease; I'll be 74 then, and maybe I'll retire."
"I love all this," he confides when the TV lights are switched off. "It gets me good press."
The public relations firm begun by presidential communications assistant Gerald Rafshoon is handling publicity for Greco's new restaurant complex, and the national press is calling to learn about the unusual combination of federal offices and trendy commercial space. Greco knows how to pitch them.
"Here's a very readable thing: this is a very human story," he offers, and he's right. He met his wife - a blind date on his 21st birthday - at the very corner (18th and G Streets) where his new outdoor cafe now stands. The cafe, Senie's, is named after he.
But the controversy and the prospect of hiring 150 new employes (for an estimated annual payroll of $750,000) doesn't daunt the newly public Greco. He has already bought airline tickets for a Jan. 3 golfing vacation in Hawaii.