TV Dinners

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What's up, cook?: DiSpirito, right, with Burnett on Rocco's opening night

As Rocco DiSpirito scoots into a banquette next to me, I ask if he minds if I tape-record the interview. "Not at all," he says as a cameraman aims his video rifle at us and another crewman lowers a boom mike over our table. "Do you mind if I record your recording?"

I do, kind of — Do I look reporterly? Is that olive oil on my sleeve?--but DiSpirito, 36, is the kind of star chef who is as accustomed to the heat of floodlights as to that of a 30,000-BTU burner. Bedroom-eyed and sporting a dusting of stubble, DiSpirito runs Union Pacific, a paragon of gilded, inventive Manhattan dining. He is a regular on the Food Network and the Today show. Now he's hoping his two vocations will meld like orecchiette and broccoli rabe at his new restaurant, Rocco's, which doubles as the set of a reality-TV show. The Restaurant (NBC, Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T., starting July 20) will chronicle the (we're told) sexy, pressure-cooker world of a high-profile restaurant.

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Rocco's, DiSpirito says, is a deeply personal venture that pays homage to his southern Italian heritage. So why turn over his dream — not to mention his 78-year-old mother, who makes meatballs in the kitchen — to the all-seeing cameras of Mark Burnett, producer of Survivor? "I may be naive to say this," he says, "but I knew my second restaurant would be a highly scrutinized affair anyway — young chef, three-star restaurant down the block. The fact that cameras are running around doesn't make you feel any more scrutinized." Not if you're one of PEOPLE magazine's Sexiest Men Alive. The previous generation of celebrity chefs — Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse — became famous more on personality than looks. Now a new group of easy-on-the-eyes cooks — Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, DiSpirito — have thrown a bit of sex into their stew. Today, says DiSpirito, "you have to be a good marketer as much as a good chef just to survive."

Visiting Rocco's is less like entering a restaurant than like crossing the border into a pleasurable but intrusive security state. In a red tent on the sidewalk, a well-dressed young woman asks you to sign a release — five pages of teensy-print legalese ("I warrant and represent that I am not currently a candidate for public office ..."). Inside, the surveillance is near total: in addition to five camera crews weaving around the wait staff, there are cameras on the ceiling, over the bar and behind two-way mirrors. Producers assure me there are none in the bathrooms, but I do my business a little more discreetly anyway.

DiSpirito and crew interviewed some 3,000 potential staff members, many of whom, unsurprisingly, had show-biz dreams. "There are some actors and actresses who have waited here, and every night they're Ethel Merman, playing to the cameras," says Rocco's maitre d', Alex Corrado. "I just try to be myself." It doesn't hurt that Corrado's self happens to be a rotund, New Jersey — accented Italian-American actor (he was eaten by wild boars in Hannibal) who earlier in the evening was singing opera in front of the restaurant. Says Burnett: "This cast would do great on Survivor, as far as dramatic television." Some of the customers are also cast members: they apply on the show's website, arguing why their dinner would make good TV (a gay marriage proposal, for example), and they are wired with mikes when they arrive.

There are, arguably, more entertaining diversions than watching people eat. But, the producers are quick to point out, Cheers was about watching people drink. Burnett compares the tension between the wait staff and the kitchen drudges to the divide between the first-class swells and the coal shovelers in Titanic, and co — executive producer Ben Silverman, who conceived the show, argues that "restaurants are the new theater." The Restaurant is also the new advertising: it will have product placements worked in even more snugly than Survivor does. DiSpirito runs errands in a Mitsubishi, and only American Express cards and Coors beer will make it onscreen. (Network commercial rules still apply, so there are no hard-liquor placements.) Thanks to these sponsorships, the show costs NBC almost nothing. As for the customers, Silverman notes with satisfaction, "Not only are they willing to share these primal life moments with us, they're paying for the meal."

All this may sound a little contrived and a lot exhibitionistic. But then again, a Manhattan restaurant is all about performance. People dress up to see and be seen. Women pretend to laugh at men's jokes. Waiters pretend to care whether you enjoyed your meal. What DiSpirito should be worried about is whether the formula for good TV is the formula for a good restaurant. (Taping began in March — before the restaurant opened in early June — and ended last week, but NBC may decide to order more episodes.) Successful restaurants depend on some measure of reliability. Successful reality shows thrive on chaos, discord and disaster. "We could win an Emmy," DiSpirito says, "but we could still close down in six months." Millions will tune in as The Restaurant shows us how the sausage is made. But when the cameras are long gone, will anyone want to eat it?