Things I LoveThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

DINING AT AN ICONIC RESTAURANT

What is it about being told “no” that gets the juices flowing?  My favorite expression as that relates to work is “the selling begins when the buyer says no.”   But this particular “no” had nothing to do with work …   
 
The original Rao’s in Harlem

For a very long time, I have wanted to dine at a restaurant called Rao’s located in Harlem.  Frankly I’m not quite sure how I first learned of this establishment, but probably from reading where the glitterati go and where one must be an insider to have the experience.

 
 Frank Pelligreno









The restaurant has been in business in some iteration for more than a century, and is currently operated by Frank Pelligreno – who had a recurring role as an FBI agent in the Sopranos — and Ron Straci, nephew of the founder.  With just 10 tables, one seating per night Monday through Friday only, the chances of getting in are beyond slim. And those 10 tables are literally “owned” by the regulars.  One is always welcome for a drink at the bar, but I want to sit there and savor the experience.   While researching more about the place, I came upon this posting by photojournalist Nancy Ellison:  
 

 

Monday night at Rao’s isn’t your average Monday night somewhere else. Rao’s, in Spanish Harlem and in the same family since 1896, with only ten tables and one seating is ‘famiglia’, and as such is closed over the weekend. Monday night is its weekly re-birth and the crowd is always gleeful, festive and full of song. (Yes they sing at Rao’s … but that is another story) Monday night regulars, besides the characters that look like the cast from Goodfellas – and sometimes are, have included Sonny Grasso (the real cop from the French Connection) sportswriter, Dick Schaap (when Dick passed away Billy Crystal asked in his eulogy who would inherit the table), Ron Perelman, Woody Allen, and Judge Eddie Torres (who wrote Carlito’s Way and Q and A). Also seen Monday nights, Sophia Loren, Senator Alphonse D’Amato, Mike Wallace, Sharon Stone, Martin Scorsese, Don Rickles, Pierce Brosnan – the list is endless.
 
And, yes, I know the products are sold at retail – I am huge fan of the jarred sauces and am ecstatic when they are offered on “sale” at the grocery store as the going rate is about $10.   I will never forget the first time I allowed myself to purchase this extravagant item; the son was helping to carry the groceries and, of course, dropped the one bag containing the precious sauce!  He was just a tyke but you can only imagine.  I kept telling myself, it’s only sauce!  On various visits to NYC over the years, I have tried and tried to get that illusive table, regardless of the obstacles, with the end result being the same recorded message:  “Thank you calling Rao’s.  We are presently booked for (fill in the year) and not taking reservations at the present time for (fill in the following year).  Please do not leave a message here.”  I even resorted to emailing Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, after she had an episode of her show where she cooked with Frank at the restaurant.  I pleaded with her for help to get us a table for the kids’ college graduations.  But obviously to no avail.
 
Our booth was surrounded by familiar faces ..

And that brings us to the present dinner at the Rao’s now open in Hollywood.  Not only did I get a return call from family member Angie (maybe my new best friend), but she kindly got us in on an otherwise sold-out evening after she had to change from our original booking. BTW, one must provide a credit card when reserving. The penalty for a no-show?  That would be $50 per person charged to the card.  That requirement is hardly surprising after restaurateurs we’ve spoken to told us of a rather unseemly yet common practice:  People will make multiple reservations at different establishments in order to make a last-minute decision — and sometimes not even bother cancelling the other bookings.   Therefore, I don’t blame Rao’s for their particular policy. 

By the time we arrived at 7p.m., the place was pretty much full.  Once seated I asked a ton of questions, including how many seatings per night?   Usually 1; maybe 1-1/2 given that the hours are just 6-10:30.  What I immediately noticed is that very few tables had just 2 persons .. there were far more with tables of at least 6.  That makes sense because “family-style” ordering is encouraged and the portions are definitely on the ample side.  I also asked how far in advance they take reservations and was told well into next year.  Thursdays or Fridays? Fuggetabout it!  Very tough already after only 5 weeks of being open.  So just what is so good about this place?

With the hubby and great friend/client Denise!



Well, the food is downright delicious.  Not to be missed are the meatballs, enormous and covered with a fabulous sauce.  Pasta e fagioli soup was another stand-out, but my favorite was a pasta dish of homemade “purses” stuffed with ricotta cheese in a clarified butter sauce and just a smattering of cranberries to cut the richness.   Plus the penne with Vodka sauce was pretty good too.   As for ambiance, well that probably isn’t their strong suit.  It is very loud and there is a lot going on.  But if you’re a people watcher, it doesn’t get much better.   I definitely want to make several return trips with friends and family so they too can experience this iconic place.  


Those are a couple of LARGE meatballs!

 

Salad with roasted beets, pistachios & goat cheese

 

Wonderful pasta e fagioli soup






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

Penne with vodka sauce

 

Oh, and one last note, there is one other Rao’s located in Las Vegas (at Caesar’s Palace).   In fact many of the LA staff was transferred from that location to work at the new one here.  But that would mean I’d have to actually GO to Las Vegas in order to eat there.  And the chance of that happening is about the same as getting a table at the NY Rao’s …

 

The stuffed purses 

 

What was left of the NY cheesecake!