Picks and Pans Review: The Restaurant

UPDATED 08/04/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/04/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

NBC (Sundays, 10 p.m. ET)

Somebody pinch me. There's a new reality show on a major broadcast network and it's not a variation on Survivor, American Idol or The Bachelor? Just by being different, this series about the launch of a Manhattan eatery stirs excitement.

The July 27 episode (second of six) offers all the drama of first night at Rocco's, celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito's fledgling Italian restaurant: fire in the kitchen, demanding patrons, waiters muttering curses when they're not frantically smiling. The boyishly handsome DiSpirito makes an engaging protagonist, nice enough to designate his 77-year-old mother, Nicolina, as executive chef but New York-tough enough to scream a few expletives when employees perform poorly in the clutch.

The only thing about the show that doesn't go down well—besides the intrusive plugs for a certain brand of beer—is its disingenuousness about the role of TV in the whole enterprise. A glaring example came in the premiere when DiSpirito's publicist made it sound as if he'd scored a coup by arranging for the chef to appear on NBC's Today Show and promote a casting call for would-be Rocco's staff members. Gee, what network is The Restaurant on?

If you're hungry for more unscripted culinary drama, try the Food Network series Into the Fire. The tense Aug. 8 episode shows stressed apprentices cooking for 1,000 diners at West Virginia's Greenbrier resort.

BOTTOM LINE: Flavorful

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