ROCCO'S $IDE DISH
Sun Aug 10, 3:11 AM ET
By LAUREN BARACK
Prime-time chef Rocco DiSpirito, the star of the hit reality show "The Restaurant," is using a string of lucrative sponsorships and free handouts to turn his culinary gamble into his own financial feeding frenzy as he makes a determined grab for fame.
The 36-year-old restaurateur could end up pocketing nearly $2 million from the TV series and stands to earn millions more through his fast-rising new celebrity profile, industry sources say.
Rocco DiSpirito collected a "talent fee" thought to be about 6 percent of the show's total budget, The Post has learned. Thatamountedto about $350,000 for the six-part series.
He also clinched a lucrative advertising contract with one of the show's sponsors, American Express, signed deals for free loans of an SUV from Mitsubishi and a trendy Italian scooter from Vespa, has a cookbook due in October and is negotiating to launch Rocco-brand cookware and packaged food.
With 7.8 million people watching last week's third episode of "The Restaurant" - giving NBC a clear win in the 10-11 p.m. Sunday time slot, according to Nielsen Media Research - the real reward for DiSpirito could come in the form of a future Hollywood career, whether his East Side restaurant survives or not.
Rocco is not only relishing the attention; he seems hungry for more.
"I kind of put my energy out there and hope things work out," he said. "It's always great when people talk about you. Everyone loves accolades. Everyone loves to be loved."
And there appears to be a lot of love in the sweet deals DiSpirito did with those companies willing to back his idea of filming the creation and operation of a New York restaurant he named after himself - "Rocco's."
The program was funded by three major sponsors, American Express, Mitsubishi and Coors beer. Each advertiser got one of six advertising slots on the hourlong show, while NBC sold the other three. The slots are worth about $200,000 a pop, according to the show's executive producer, Robert Riesenberg.
DiSpirito looked after his backers in other ways, particularly through generous product placements as the cameras were rolling. He drove a Mitsubishi throughout filming, Coors trucks were filmed making deliveries to the East 22nd Street eatery, and American Express was the card of choice among some featured diners.
"It was a bit like, 'Hey waiter, there's a commercial in my soup,' " one diner at the restaurant commented.
While NBC isn't quite ready to plop DiSpirito into his own sitcom - as it did unsuccessfully with fellow chef Emeril two years ago - the new haute cuisine hunk isn't wasting any time prepping for the next deal.
While he's currently signed with former Endeavor Agency agent Lon Rosen, DiSpirito revealed he's talking to other agents about deals that are being thrown at him - from television shows, to books, to "other things," he said.
DiSpirito's Chicago-based branding agency, Antsnpants, is looking to launch a line of cookware and packaged foods by the end of the year.
"This is all about brand Rocco," said Antsnpants partner Fred Siegel.
NBC has been quick to promote what the network calls its newest TV star. DiSpirito has appeared on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (news - Y! TV)" the Conan O'Brien (news - Y! TV) and Carson Daley late-night shows.
But the chef's Hollywood style has peeved some of his peers, who say their profession has been sullied by DiSpirito's cavalier attitude to a serious business.
"I'm embarrassed by it," said a well-placed insider with 25 years of experience in New York's restaurant scene. "It gives you the impression we're just here to take the money and run. We're trying to build a clientele. I suppose you could call them fans if you want, but that's very Hollywood."
Limelight, though, is one of DiSpirito's specialties of the house. He was tagged as one of People magazine's "Sexiest Men Alive."
"Personally, I'd be concerned if I was portrayed that way," said Henry Meer, executive chef and owner of City Hall restaurant in TriBeCa and the Cub Room. "But chefs have different desires. Who would have thought Emeril would be Emeril with just one word, 'Bam!' "
DiSpirito brushes aside his critics. "Right now, I see my primary responsibility is Rocco's," he said. "I don't want it to be a flash [in the pan]."
"I think if you ask Emeril or Bobby [Flay] or Mario [Batali], or Ming [Tsai], whether or not TV is a helpful way to promote your product, they'll agree it is."