March 31, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Rao’s: All in the Family
Frankie Pellegrino runs a tight little ship for the family. Photo: Steven Richter
Frankie Pellegrino runs a tight little ship for the family. Photo: Steven Richter

        “There’s almost no point in writing about Rao’s,” I said in April 1985, when I first critiqued that quaint little joint with its perennial Christmas tinsel and eight tables that seemed always to be booked months ahead.  Now it’s ten tables booked year round with a motley claque of regulars: show biz types, unlikely business men, wise guys and neighborhood pals, a few that are licensed to carry and some who are not but can’t help it.

        Last week I was signing copies of my memoir, Insatiable, after a talk at Fairfield College in Connecticut and a woman came right to the point.  “I’m 84 years old,” she said.  “And I want to know how to get into Rao’s.  They don’t even answer their phone.”

        I noticed right away she wasn’t buying a book but given her age and all, I thought I should respond.  “You’re right.  It’s impossible.”

        “We went all the way to the city on the train and at Grand Central, we got into a taxi and said, ‘Do you know how to get to Rao’s?’ and he did. A bunch of guys were rehabbing the place and we said, ‘Why don’t you answer your phone?’  They said they might answer it in November.  But they didn’t.”

Lately our usual starters seem better than ever. Photo: Steven Richter.

        “Forget Rao’s,” I advise her. “The people who go ‘own’ their tables one night a week. You can only get in if you know someone who has one. Try Il Mulino.” I could have sent her to Rao’s in Las Vegas – its mockup of the famous red entrance is uncanny.  But it’s not Rao’s because you can get in.  And at Rao’s you can’t get in.

        “They sell their spaghetti sauce at the grocery now,” she says.

        “Well there you are.  Their marinara sauce is really good,” I assure her. “Make your own spaghetti at home because there’s no way I know of getting a table.”

        But people are obsessed. The driver charged with transporting me to Connecticut tells me he wouldn’t take no answer for an answer.  He stopped by in person some years ago, he confides. Somehow he won them over and got a reservation with only five months wait. He endeared himself and now he can get in once in a while.  “And it doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or just an everyday person,” he assures me.  “They sit down to take your order anyway, like you were one of their people and the waiters treat you the same and you get the same food.”

        My first time at Rao’s took connections. I managed to get included on a night Abby Hirsch, then one half of the matchmaking Godmothers was taking some pals for dinner.  Abby got to be a regular when her car broke down not far away and she came in to use the phone. But the tiny fiefdom had already been carved into leases then. I advised readers to write a novel so they could get invited to Michael Korda’s booth.  That was right near Dick Schaap’s, where you might see Mets pitcher Tom Seaver. We were assured you could leave your keys in the car when you parked outside Rao’s and no one would take it. They wouldn’t dare.

        It seems even tougher to get in now, though occasional hopefuls join the press three deep at the bar hoping a table will turn, before the kitchen closes. The chosen ones might call when they can’t come, but usually they just pass their claim on to a pal.  It’s stronger currency than the Euro, that white-draped table.  Twenty-thousand bucks just for the reservation in a charity auction: winner pays for the food.

        And actually I just learned there is the tiniest crack in the wall. Frankie Pellegrino books the house for the year in November, including three 9:30 tables for predictable turnover. The “family” claims 70 per cent of the house right off the top.  But if you come in personally during the week of Thanksgiving and leave your name, you might score.  “The place is too small. The demand is too great,” says Pellegrino. “I’m handcuffed and I have no intention of changing. This is what Rao’s has been for 100 years. We have to take care of people who’ve been here since the getgo.”

Susan Kasen Summer passes the house’s splendid grilled peppers.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The Road Food Warrior and I feel almost like regulars now since we have friends with a Monday table who invite us often. We try to be nonchalant – maybe we actually are nonchalant – whenever we see stars: Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson. Ben Gazzara.  Danny DeVito stopped at our table, introducing himself, shaking each of our hands.  We were there the night a chivalrous wretch named Louis shot a wise guy dead for mouthing off while someone was singing and an innocent bystander was shot in the foot.  We left too early though and missed the floor show. I always feel a little shiver as we walk in. It could be unemployed “Sopranos” at the big front table giving us the eye…or more likely, the real deal. And who knows when someone will get pissed off by a rotten cork and pull out a weapon?

        I remember young Frankie Pellegrino in shirt sleeves 20 years ago pulling up a chair and taking orders for the owner/cooks, Uncle Vinnie and Aunt Anna, with piled high platinum hair and dark glasses like Mia Farrow in Broadway Danny Rose.  They left the place to Frankie and a partner and now that his acting career has taken off – he played an FBI agent in “The Sopranos” – he walks around in $3000 tailor made pinstripes, hugging, being hugged, kissing the air, so dapper. After a fire of unexplained origin, he supposedly hired a decorator to recreate the old look, the wooden paneling, the Christmas frippery, the vintage photographs, the collected book covers by habitués and wannabes. (I’m a bit miffed my book cover is not hanging there. Frankie promised. I fancied it on an empty space below the Pope. Maybe Titian’s naked Duchess of Urbino in my hat on the cover is sacrilegious.)

Somehow our favorite iceberg salad got very wedgy last visit.  Photo: Steven Richter

        “Good grub” I called the food then and it still is.  Lately it seems even better than I remember although I can’t seem to get the pasta I love from a night we called en route from an after-theater party that wasn’t working out gastronomically, figuring it would be easy to score a table close to 10. “The kitchen is closing,” the voice warned, “but if you order now, you can come. “ Triumphantly seated, it was as if we’d never ordered.  We ate whatever the kitchen had left including that fabulously garlicky fusilli with Italian sausage and cabbage. A few weeks ago I tried to recreate the thrill but a new hand at the stove, I’m guessing, tossed in tomato sauce and it just wasn’t the same.

        Our Monday night hostess often orders ahead, always the same starters: fabulous crumbed and baked little necks, a mound of slivered and grilled red peppers with pine nuts (I think I once saw a raisin too).  And a giant bowl of salad – iceberg lettuce, tomato wedges, onion and cucumber, a memory of childhood. She and I polish it off while everyone else tries to get over the fact they’re eating iceberg. A year ago we discovered the pleasure of the outsize meatballs. They’re a must. There’s often a huge veal chop or two, already sliced so the table can share, and vinegar’d lemon chicken, sometimes actually juicy. On our most recent outing, she ordered steak – tender and meaty but alas overcooked. Everyone complained and ate it anyway. I try to persuade her to skip dessert – it was easy when she was dieting.  But now there’s always someone skinny at the table who cannot understand denial. Cheesecake arrives, excellent ice creams (that quickly disappear though I try not to be piggy) and the inevitable commercial chocolate tartufo you can find in almost any little Italian trattoria. Our host very elegantly writes a check without gasping or wincing as plastic doesn’t have any clout here.

        Monday nights were especially raucous and almost homey when producer Sonny Grasso (The French Connection), at the table next to ours, was promoting the career of a bellowing young tenor who sang along to his own arias on the juke box, a legendary treasury of hits. Sometimes when he’s feeling mellow, Frankie will take the mike to chant along with Sinatra on the jukebox.  I’ll never forget the extraordinary Monday when he waved his arm beckoning us all to sing along.  At a small four top in the rear I could see Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, echoing Frankie and Frank. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett crooning:  “And may I say - not in a shy way, no, oh no, not me, I did it my way…”

455 East 115th Street at Pleasant Avenue. 212 722 6709. From 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday only.

Click here to read my orignal New York review of Rao's April 5,1985


Cafe Fiorello