The Knives Are Out

Mark Burnett has fallen in love, and the object of his affection is an enormous Italian man in a velour sweat suit. It's opening night at Rocco's, the new Manhattan eatery where the "Survivor" creator is staging his latest reality-TV venture, "The Restaurant," and 12 people, including Burnett, are mashed into a tiny control room just off the main floor. Eight TVs monitor different scenes from the restaurant, but now all eyes are on Sweat Suit Man. "These meatballs are raw," he says with a thick Bronx accent. "Ma, Sunday night, we're coming over for some real meatballs." The control room roars. "Dude, that's wonderful!" Burnett cries. (For what it's worth, NEWSWEEK loved the meatballs.) On screen, a waiter comes up and asks the man how his food is. Everyone leans in. Here it comes--fireworks! Drama! Instead, something better happens. "Your meatballs," he says sheepishly, "are the best."

The beauty of NBC's "The Restaurant," which premieres on July 20 at 10 p.m., ET, is that it's a glimpse of everything you never get to see: what your waiter says about you after he walks away, the chef dropping f-bombs in the kitchen, the mirror-fogging high jinks in the restroom. The star of the show is 36-year-old Rocco DiSpirito, the three-star chef on People's 2002 "sexiest man alive" list, who got to fulfill his dream of opening an Italian eatery for his beloved mama. For Burnett, "The Restaurant" was an opportunity to stay one step ahead in the cutthroat reality-TV game: "If I see another voting-off show, I'll die."

Based on just a few early scenes from "The Restaurant," it's clear that Burnett feels just as comfortable in a dining room as in the African jungle. DiSpirito is an ideal protagonist: a charmer forced by the demands of TV to build a high-end eatery in just five weeks (instead of the usual five months). In one scene, he gathers his wait staff to quiz them about the menu. "What's in Mama's meatballs?" he asks one waitress. She cringes. "Um, meat?" It's the third wrong answer. "OK," says DiSpirito, "I'm about to get in a fight with you guys."

The cameras are gone now, so DiSpirito is back to being just a chef--and boy, does he sound relieved. "I'm usually much more in control of my restaurant than I was in this case," he says. "If I had 10 days off in the sun, I'm sure I'd sound happier about the experience." DiSpirito also has to worry about how the show will affect his reputation as a serious chef. Reality TV isn't exactly admired in the foodie world. What's worse, NBC won't let him see the pilot until the premiere party. "I think that's wrong," he says. "I really wish they'd change their minds." For chefs especially, reality bites.