Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dinner for four at Rao’s

6.2.06 - A friend gave JH a reservation for a table of four at Rao’s, the legendary Italian restaurant on 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue (East of First), and he invited me and two other pals to join him.

I’d never been to Rao’s and reservations can be hard to get (last minute anyway) because it’s small and very very popular. The place was founded 110 years ago as a saloon in the same spot by Charles Rao who had immigrated to this country as a child with his mother and father. When Charles died in 1909, the restaurant was run by his brother until 1930 when Charles’ sons Louis and Vincent took over. The brothers were born in the house next door and Vincent was also married there and lived in the house until his death seven years ago (brother Louis died in 1958).

Vincent’s wife Anna got involved in the business
in the early 70s and became chef. Her Southern Italian cooking improved all the Italian dishes and nurtured the steady clientele. Today the place is co-owned by Anna’s nephew Frank Pellegrino and Vincent’s nephew Ron Straci.

It’s tiny, just a couple of steps down from the sidewalk, right on the corner, and impeccably maintainted inside and out. Once inside, you’re in a wood paneled old time restaurant with an ample bar and table seating (including wood booths) for 50. That’s why, if you have a reservation for four, you must have four people show up. There’s always a waiting list.
Clockwise from top left: Mozzarella in Carozza; A wall of photographs; Table lamp made from Rao's marinara sauce; The jukebox; Italian cheesecake with a scoop of coffee ice cream; The meatballs; Orecchiette and penne.
The walls are covered with framed photographs, like you might see in the theatre district, of its famous clientele as well as books written by its famous clientele. At our table there were two framed Linda Fairstein mysteries hanging just above us.

When we arrived at 7, for a seven-thirty rez, there was a brand new black Rolls and a stretch limo parked out front. The place was almost empty, except for the large round table at the entrance, and about eight people congregated at the bar. We were seated immediately (there were four of us) and a barman came along wearing an old fashioned tavern apron and took the order for our drinks. Within a very few minutes, the place was filled. Then a man wearing a tweed sport jacket came along and pulled up a chair at the end of our table and sat down with his order pad.

He asked if any of us had been there before. No. Okay. So he explained how it worked. The menu is served family style, with everyone sharing (as much as they wished) the ultimate choices. There were the appetizers, such as seafood salad and plain salad (we chose both). Then came the pasta dishes (we chose two), then the main courses (we chose scampi and veal marsala) with green vegetables – asparagus and broccoli rabe. After the main course, another waiter came over to and reeled off the list of desserts. I chose coffee ice cream and ricotta cheese cake. In fact everyone at the table chose one or the other or, like me, both. Was it good? There wasn’t a thing left on any plate through all four courses.

It’s an amazing place for a century old restaurant, maintaining its tradition cuisine, up in Harlem and yet drawing a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated crowd. One night a friend of mine was having dinner there and she saw Liz Smith dining with a small party including Victoria Gotti. Wednesday night I saw some familiar faces from the NYSD. By nine pm the place is really jumping and the decibel level running at a fairly high pitch (they’re famous for their juke box too).
The atmosphere is strictly Italian neighborhood (more like you see in the movies than in an Italian neighborhood at this point) but the place is runs without a flaw. Most of the men wear jacket and tie (there are exceptions) and the women are casually but well dressed. When we first sat down, we asked Mr. Pellegrino if we could take picture, never assuming anything. (He granted permission.) I’ve heard that Frank Pellegrino is a very good singer and it’s not unusual for him to break out in song during dinner. That didn’t happen for us, but it’s that kind of a place.

We left about ten-thirty. Taxis aren’t plentiful in that part of town although 114th on that block is very quiet and peaceful at that time of night (it runs adjacent to a small park). So we walked about 10 blocks until we found a cab.