Stars, feuds, scandals and $275 pasta: How Nello reigned as Madison Avenue’s restaurant king

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If you ever wanted a plate of pasta that cost $275, with a side of Beyoncé and Jay Z, then you went to Nello on Madison Avenue.

If you wanted to dine next to Paris Hilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger, then you went to Nello.

And if you wanted to sample “sawdusty chicken livers lashed with balsamic,” “lentil soup familiar to anyone who owns a can opener” and “too-salty saffron risotto” — according to the New York Times back in 2010 — then you went to Nello.

But the NYC hospitality industry is now mourning restaurateur Nello Balan, the richly-accented self-styled “baron of dining.”

He leaves behind grieving loved ones, a slew of lawsuits, and memories of how he made 696 Madison Avenue the place to see the stars.

Nello (never Mr. Balan), who counted Ivana Trump as one of his close friends, passed away aged 64 on Tuesday afternoon at New York-Presbyterian hospital, his daughter, Lucy, confirmed to Page Six.”

“I was by his side,” she said.

The restaurateur underwent a successful surgery less than two years ago to remove a brain tumor, but he was recovering from a recent ski accident that landed him “in and out of the hospital for about a month,” Lucy revealed.

In the past few years, Nello had spent his time traveling around the world, including living in Rome for a year with his girlfriend, Princess Rita von Boncompagni Ludovisi.

He told her it was his greatest romance.

He opened Nello in early 1992.

It was his first restaurant venture and came to define the idea of a celebrity restaurant.

A year later it attracted its first mention in The Post.

We noted: “Chef Sandro Fioriti is now cooking at Nello on Madison Ave.”

But soon, the boldface names and not the chef became the story of Nello.

The only food which stayed in the headlines were the truffles (there was always a supply of black, and usually of white too).

On any given night, you could find Mick Jagger on one table, billionaire hedge funder John Paulson (just “my friend” to Nello) at another and socialite Honore Ryan at a third.

The lure of Nello crossed generations and genres.

Potentates, princes, Hollywood and Wall Street, lowbrow, highbrow: Nello welcomed all.

The list was almost literally endless.

Pierce Brosnan, when he was James Bond. Jennifer Lopez. Sting. Selena Gomez. A-Rod, even before he was a Yankee.

Marlo Thomas. Uma Thurman. Charlie Rose. Mickey Rourke. David Duchovny. Robin Williams. David Hasselhoff. Roberto Cavalli.

“My dear friend Bob Dylan.”

Anne Hathaway. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Kate Moss. Clint Eastwood. Brad Pitt. The infamous publicist Lizzie Grubman. Sharon Stone.

But luring in the famous went hand-in-hand with his extortionate prices.

Nello once tried to charge a group of stars – including Brian Cox before he was “Succession’s” Logan Roy — $500 for a pasta dish with truffles.

Nello ended up paying the bill himself.

In 2012, tourist Craig Tall was left stunned when he was handed a bill for $400 for an alcohol-free lunch for three.

When he asked how the bill could be so high, the waiters said his friend’s pasta cost $275.

As Tall wrote to the NYT: “I was told that Nello never discloses the prices of specials and that it is the customer’s duty to pipe up with questions.”

As for Nello himself, later that year he told Hamptons Cheat Sheet: “Overpriced, I’m not. Expensive, I am — for I offer only the best in teatro mundi. It’s the longest-running show with a full house every day.”

If he was brilliant at attracting celebrities, he was just about as good at attracting feuds and lawsuits.

He was forced to leave his eatery in 2015 after falling out with co-owner Thomas Makkos.

After handing over control of Nello to Makkos, he told Page Six it was a “marriage that didn’t work”, adding: “Some partnerships don’t work out, nobody forced me to leave Nello, it was like a marriage that didn’t work, and I made the decision to get out. I still own 50 percent of Nello but I am not involved in the daily running of it, I am concentrating on my new project. I am quite busy and happy.”

Makkos told us the two “kept in touch” despite their restaurant divorce.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without Nello. He elevated Madison Avenue. There’s the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and there’s Nello,” he said.

Then in 2017, Nello’s company, Be My Guest LLC — which hoped to open an ambitious new space on West 58th Street, but became locked in a vicious legal battle with the former occupant — went bust and filed voluntary bankruptcy papers.

He was also facing criminal contempt charges over $100,000 he owed to another restaurateur, Max Burgio.

Nello had promised to bail Burgio out of failed restaurant B & Co., open his own operation in that space on West 58th street and hire Burgio as a consultant, but Nello didn’t come through with the cash, according to court papers, and his relationship with Burgio fell apart.

An outpost of Nello in Aspen, Colo., was shuttered after six months with more than $300,000 in liens from suppliers, according to local reports.

Along the way, Nello was sued in 2012 by staffers who alleged that Nello and Nello Summertimes in Southampton made them work 60-hour weeks without overtime.

They also claimed they were routinely cheated out of tips “depending on whether they were in or out of favor.”

He was also sued by artist Jerome Luciani over a work of art that was supposed to be sold on his behalf.

A native of Romania with an exotic accent, Nello claimed to be a descendent of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Count Dracula, and flaunted bleached blond hair.

His love life too had its ups and downs.

From his first marriage he had oldest daughters, Lucy — his business partner — and Olivia.

He then had two children, Madison and Grant, with his Turkish ex-wife Elbi Askin.

In May 2006, he was ordered to take six months’ worth of classes on domestic violence after pleading guilty to an attempted assault on ex-girlfriend, Heather Payne.

He went on to become engaged to fashionista Jasmine Oh in 2013, as Page Six reported, although there was no marriage.

His final romance was with American-born Princess Rita.

Already traumatized after recently being thrown out of her $500 million palazzo in Rome by her late husband Prince Nicolo’s sons, she told Page Six she was “bereft.”

“Nello brought joy into my life, once again…we have shed many, many tears,” she said.

She revealed that only last week, the showman told her their romance was the “happiest time of his life”.

Rita, 73, a former actress turned real estate broker, who also counts former Democratic congressman husband, John Jenrette, as an ex-husband, said the couple first met at Nello when he paid her bill because it was so expensive.

“We spoke every day, and I was on FaceTime when Nello died. It was very painful, Nello’s daughters are like my family. They are wonderful and I love them and their children,” she added.

While loved ones will gather to remember him at his funeral planned for Wednesday in Great Neck, he remained “secretive” about his life, according to his friend, socialite and Hampton Sheet publisher Joan Jedell.

Jedell told us: “He was definitely unique, a genius, look at all the celebrities and royalty that came to Nello.

“It was the most exciting place in New York, but unfortunately he fell with the taxes and the other things, he ended up losing the restaurant and I think that was the saddest thing ever for him.

“Even to his last day, he didn’t want to give up, his daughter told me.”

She added that it was his dream to return to Nello, adding: “Of course he would have wanted to be back there, he would have kept it if he could.

Jedell even recounted how Nello made her leave her home to dine with him outside in a snowstorm.

“He was so funny, he never wanted to look sad or upset and weak. And if someone was an idiot, he’d say ‘you are an idiot’, he had no tolerance for idiots.

“He made New York fun,” she said.

Additional reporting by Emily Smith and Carlos Greer

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