Gobbling Bread at Rao's
New York Magazine, April 5, 1985
There is almost no point in writing about Rao’s. This quaint joint with just eight tables gets booked weeks, even months ahead. And if you aren’t a friend of a friend, forget it. So go write a novel and sell it to Michael Korda at Simon & Schuster. Get him to take you. He has his own booth there. Rao’s is New York legend. For research sake, I must get in. Finally, through the grapevine, I hear that Abby Hirsch, of the matchmaking Godmothers, is taking some pals there. Abby’s been a Rao’s button woman since her car broke down not too far away and she dropped in to use the phone. I don’t know Korda’s story, but I’m not writing the Bible here. This is just a review.
Anyway, we’re driving to the edge of the world, and just where it drops off, there’s Rao’s. First off, you’ve got to admire the décor: Christmas tinsel, a Valentine heart, dried hydrangeas, Sammy Davis Jr.in plaster of Paris, a giant Labrador. The jukebox is richer in treasures than the wine velar at “21”: Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dinah Washington. You look for the rough-and-ready habitués legend promises - the men wearing identification bracelets with their names spelled out in diamonds, “not just the nickname, but the whole name.” Surprise - the crowd looks like a class reunion at Princeton. That’s Tom Seaver in the booth behind us, with Dick Schaap and their wives. Schaap sends over a taste of the white-bean-and-escarole soup. Its great, all right.
Frankie (a nephew of the cooks, and the lone waiter except when his wrestler son helps out) pulls up a red vinyl dinette chair and sits down to take our order. “Everything we got is good,” he begins, and won’t let us order more than two pastas. “Vincent and Anna are all alone in the kitchen and it’s too much.” Then there is a long wait. I watch a woman get up from her table and fetch platters from the kitchen. That’s one way to survive. We’re gobbling bread. “Stop with the bread, “ Frankie scolds. And finally, after an hour, what my food-writer friend Paula Wolfert calls “good grub” arrives.
That’s not meant as a put-down. Though what is modestly billed as “fish salad” turns out to be a sprightly toss of lobster, crabmeat, tender calamari, and conch, a decidedly elegant dish, most everything is hearty and home-style, fresh, just cooked, and, sometimes, decidedly sublime. Roasted red peppers taste of the grill and are studded with pine nuts and plumped raisins. Baked clams are moistly crumbed, and clam “zuppa” boats a sturdy red sauce. Rao’s makes the best veal Milanese I’ve had in months (and at half the price of most). Crispy southern fried chicken or the same bird sautéed with garlic, onion, and vinagared peppers or in lemon sauce, a brace of big grilled veal chops or a couple of hefty pork chops, just a bit dry but savory anyway…are all winners.
Why then are pastas so soupy and overcooked (no half-orders), vegetables so soggy? Noodles are carelessly drained, and yet at least one soup - our macaroni-and-bean - has no broth at all. A storm of ground cheese and hot-pepper flakes turns it into a likeable pasta. Also, tough calamari in red sauce and slices of steak in a timid pizzaiola are best forgotten. But what’s good is so good, you don’t mind iceberg lettuce in the house salad.
There are only two choices for dessert: lots of fresh fruit - grapes, pineapple, pears, whatever’s in season - or the same commercial tartufo restaurateurs everywhere buy on Bleecker Street. Here, I swear, it tastes wonderful. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s Sinatra singing “New York, New York.” Or overhearing a man across the way saying, “I’ve only hit her seven times in eighteen years.” (Only later do I realize he must have been quoting the news of the day). It nags at me that there are two empty tables that first night…remembering how I struggled to get a reservation. “We can only take just so many people,” Frankie explains. “Because my Uncle Vincent and Aunt Anna are cooking everything to order.” Sure enough, as we leave, there is Vincent in his cowboy hat, all of 77, not looking weary at all, and Anna cooling off at the bar, perky as can be. They say Mia Farrow modeled her character in Broadway Danny Rose after Anna. Seeing her high-piled platinum hair and dark glasses, I’m thinking…could be.
I’d definitely find some way to get into Rao’s even if it does mean writing a novel. Buy the $95 dollar dinner for two with your royalties.
455 East 114th Street, at Pleasant Avenue