Larry Cullen Interview
In May 1998, one of the greatest singers of the 20 th Century, Frank Sinatra,
In tribute to Frank Sinatra, we thought it would be fitting to offer up remembrances
of the singer by some of the people who either knew or worked with him.
Larry Cullen was one such person. Mr. Cullen is the Maitre’d at Matteo’s
Restaurant in Los Angeles, a once favored hang-out for Frank Sinatra.
Mr. Cullen knew Frank Sinatra for 20 years.
Q – Mr. Cullen, what kind of a restaurant is Matteo’s?
A – Matteo’s is an Italian Restaurant, a Southern Italian Restaurant.
It’s been here for 39 years. The owner is from Hoboken, New Jersey and
his name is Matty Jordan. He’s quite a Damon Runyan character. He was
delivered by Mrs. Sinatra-----Dolly Sinatra. He goes all the way back to Frank.
Mr. Sinatra says that Matty is the most interesting character he’s ever
met. He’s quite a horse player, gambler, carouser, and just all around
very nice man. The kind of food we cook is kind of comfort food. It’s
what everybody’s mother used to make. It’s Italian. We have all
the veal parmagnes, all the chicken, all the fish. We have steaks. We have
about 20 pastas. But, we have things like escarole ‘n’ beans, things
you don’t find in other nouveau Italian restaurants. They don’t
even know what it is.
Q – You’ve been working at Matteo’s
for how long?
A – 25 years.
Q – And you’re the Maitre‘d?
A – Yes, sir.
Q – Now, what does that job entail?
A – I started out as a waiter. Then I became a captain. The Maitre’d
was the brother of Matty. He died 9 years ago. So, I’ve been the Maitre‘d
for eight years. Before that, I was the captain and ran the dining room floor.
I ran all the food for all the stars and there were many, many of them. Literally
Hollywood royalty. What does it entail? Everything from doing the payroll to
checking the toilets. I run the front door. I probably know everybody in town.
I personally know every movie star that has walked in here-----Lucille Ball,
Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Reagan when he was President. The steady’s were Jack
Lemon and Walter Mathau. Last night we had Bob Newhart, Don Rickles. Dolly
Parton comes a lot. We had Paul Horning of football fame right here for the
Notre Dame game. And of course Mr. Sinatra always used to come with Cubby Broccoli,
who’s the producer of the James Bond films. Lucy was a good buddy. I
can give you a book if you want. There’s not many people I don’t
Q – When did you first meet Frank Sinatra?
A – I probably met Frank Sinatra around 1978.
Q – How long had he been coming to Matteo’s
at that point?
A – He’d been coming since the day we opened. He was a close friend
of Mr. Jordan’s, Matty. Matteo’s is named after Matty. In Italian
the word Matteo translates to Matty. So, a lot of people say, let’s go
to Matty’s. We didn’t advertise in the old days. This was a Hollywood
club. This was a clique. We never needed to advertise. People would wait hours
just to come and see the stars. If you wanted to see a star, you came to Matteo’s.
Q – Could a person who isn’t a star eat at Matteo’s?
A – Of course. But, you have to make a reservation weeks in advance.
Not so much now, ‘cause a lot of ‘em (stars) are gone.
Q – Were you intimidated or awe struck when you
met Frank Sinatra?
A – No, ‘cause I waited on him before in another Italian restaurant
that I’d been with. My theory on waiting on all these stars is to literally
approach them with a very positive attitude and look ‘em straight in
the eye and ask them what they want, not put my head down or bow down or look
away. Look ‘em straight in the eye. If you do that with most stars they’ll
tell you what they want. The greatest thing a Maitre‘d or captain or
waiter can have is his hearing. Listen to what they say. Don’t anticipate
it. Just ask them and write it down. Mr. Sinatra I always knew what he wanted.
He liked to pick. He liked to have a little cheese, a little roasted peppers.
He loved vinegar peppers. He liked to have a couple of cocktails and talk and
visit with his friends. He never was in a big hurry. He liked to put my boss
on. My boss would go back and sit with him. Frank and I still smoked so, I
always had a pack of Camels. Always-----when Mr. Sinatra was there. I’d
always get the special cheese, the special provolone, special parmesan and
special vinegar peppers.
Q – How many people would come into the restaurant
with Frank Sinatra?
A – He’d always come in with six or eight people. Sometimes maybe
just he and Barbara would come or he would just drop by. One night I was probably
the last guy who waited on Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis. It was
about 2 or 3 weeks before Sammy died. They came in literally about 10 or 10:15
at night. They came in just to see Matty. They just wanted to come in and talk
about the old days, have some fun. They all liked talking about the old days.
Q – I’ve heard that at some restaurants Frank Sinatra would go
into the kitchen and talk to the staff. Did he do that at Matteo’s?
A – He would always come into the kitchen. We’d go in and have
a cigarette and he’d tip all the boys. A lot of people used to ask how
good of a tipper is Frank Sinatra? I’d say he’s very good because
Frank always told me to take care of the check and I always took care of everybody
very well, including myself.
Q – When someone of Frank Sinatra’s stature is seated in a public
restaurant, what’s to prevent someone from coming over and asking for
an autograph or wanting to shake his hand?
A – I always put other show biz people all around him. I always put
producers, directors, other actors. They all knew when he was coming. They
didn’t all know. Nobody really knew. But, I knew that we had stars so
I would always kind of put them around him. I would always have an extra waiter
at the table. A lot of times he would come in through the back door, thru the
kitchen. He always sat in the back booth, the one closest to the kitchen. There
was a big booth for eight people. Nobody could get down the driveway. Once
he came in, they’d bring him around the back. We’d bring him in
thru the kitchen.
Q – What will you remember most about Frank Sinatra?
A – He was an impeccable dresser. I always said when you look at Frank
Sinatra, he could be wearing jeans but you’d see a tuxedo. You’d
see a clean, beautiful man with a wonderful smile. Frank was and I hate to
use the word-----class. I like to think of him as a brand new tuxedo with a
© Gary James All Rights Reserved