Until last August, Pino Piano was the maitre d' at the restaurant Va Bene, which meant that on any given night he could be found at its bar entertaining Hong Kong society in an Italian fashion that bordered on the deeply theatrical. If anyone had wished to stage a commedia dell'arte performance in an SAR setting, Piano would have been the buffo - the comic who keeps the whole thing going. Last summer, however, the jester exited stage left, unexpectedly choosing a career in hairdressing with Kim Robinson and Esprit. That lasted about five minutes, and as the card that arrived in the office recently triumphantly put it: 'Italian lovers have been missing something in Central ... Well, he's back!'
The reason for Piano's return is that he's now part-owner and full-time operator of an Italian restaurant called Gaia, which officially opened yesterday. It's in a location called the Grand Millennium Plaza, an area at the Sheung Wan end of Queen's Road Central unknown to me until I met him there for coffee. Doubtless many of Hong Kong's movers and shakers have also been wrinkling their brows over the address while admiring the saintly-cum-thoughtful photograph of Piano in profile that accompanied the invitation to the gala opening. I waved this noble portrait at him early in our meeting, and he said, reasonably: 'It's business, business. I'm sell-able, I'm using my face. I'm the face of Gaia.'
Also the body, I said slyly. (A few months ago, he became the star turn at a Christian Dior fashion show when he peeled off his shirt and revealed a torso those present still recall with gasps of pleasure.) 'Don't look at me now!' wailed Piano, pleased, but crossing his chest with his arms. 'I haven't been in the gym for a month and a half. My mission next Monday morning is to be in there at seven.' Doing what, exactly? 'One hour weights and one hour 15 minutes Stairmaster, five or six days a week, so I can hide my age.'
That discipline is part of the Piano performance. One of the reasons I wanted to meet him was that I was curious to know what he'd been like before he came to Hong Kong, a city where people invent themselves as they see fit. At first, he saw this as an opportunity for good old restaurant PR waffle ('I never felt better, it looks as though everything is working out, it's a hit', etc.) But after a while he was taken with the idea of seeing the division between what he was and what he has, willingly, become.
He was, of course, a loner as a child in Naples: wildly sociable people have often learned to become gregarious for a reason. He seldom saw his parents because they were working to make money in devastated, post-war Italy. When I asked what his mother was like, he said, simply, 'Non-judgmental.' I commented on the word and he added, 'My mum didn't beat us up. She worked very, very hard. When I work 14, 15 hours, I always think how much she worked.' And his father? 'My father was very different. We were never good enough for him.' He had a sister and an older brother but preferred running to playing with them. He trained constantly, for the 3,000 metres and later the marathon, and won medals, but realised he didn't have what it took to be an Olympic athlete and stopped. (Years later he discovered he has Meniere's disease, which affects the hearing and causes dizziness, and to stay healthy he began running again. The gym mania, typically, stokes the public image but has its roots in something more private.)
In discussing the family, he mentioned his brother had died in 1992 of Aids, 'the hardest thing in my life'. Later, he referred to his brother again and I asked if they were alike. 'We were similar but different,' Piano began, and then, to my, and I think his, utter surprise, he started to weep. We were sitting in Gaia's private dining room, and he pulled a napkin from the table and held it to his face. (That now seems to me a perfect metaphor for the way he presents his life.)
Such sudden emotion is completely infectious so, tearful too, I asked him if we should stop the interview but he shook his head. After a while, he said, 'I never talk about it. No, five years ago I made a speech in front of 350 people at Jardine's Lookout for Aids Concern and my eyes were completely dry. That was a performance. Talking now is not.
'Let me tell you one of the most terrifying things I've ever experienced,' he went on, briskly, and described an occasion when he was working at the Carlton Tower hotel in mid-1970s London and the restaurant was raked by machine-gun fire. (He'd received a warning, cleared the window area and only one diner was hurt.) Later, he told me he'd been robbed at gunpoint in a bar in New York, where he'd gone to work as a chef at the Rainbow Room. Idly, I asked what the bar was called and Piano replied, 'Cafe Society', which made me, then him, laugh; if he lost money in one cafe society, he has certainly made up for it by playing a leading role in the Hong Kong version.
Did he feel he'd become a different character here? 'Maybe there was a part of me that didn't know I could be like this,' he agreed, thoughtfully. 'You learn how to be what people want you to be. That is part of the business.' But when did he learn how to become that other person, the finely attuned Piano? Without a moment's hesitation he replied, 'When I moved to London.' Because he'd left Italy? 'Yes, because I moved away,' he said. 'And also because I was speaking a foreign language. I stuttered when I was young. It got better when I learned English.' How is the stutter now? Piano laughed. 'I haven't stuttered once today, have I?'
No, I said. Then I asked why he'd dallied with the hairdressing business and he clapped his hands, and cried, 'I knew you were going to ask that! I thought, 'Why don't I do something different?' But it was in an office and' - he waved expansively at the napery, the flowers, the paintings on Gaia's wall - 'I like glamour! I feel very comfortable with glamour!'
Yet Hong Kong society is such a strange world, I murmured, and Piano said, 'I fit in easily. This restaurant is my life, every lunch and every dinner, at least for the next 10 years. And you will never see me sad in here. You cannot work in a restaurant and be upset. When people come through the door, they must forget their problems and have absolute joy.'