The consistently toughest reservation in the history of New York restaurants is undoubtedly, Rao’s. Owner Frank Pellegrino is nicknamed “Frankie No” because that is almost always his answer when asked if there are tables available. Rao’s responded to a glowing review by the New York Times Mimi Sheraton back in 1977 by offering their regular faithful an opportunity to reserve their tables in perpetuity. Now that the cat was out of the bag, this was their way of protecting the customers that made Rao’s the best kept secret in East Harlem since 1896. Since then, the closest most of us can come to a meal at Rao’s in New York is the jarred version of their tomato sauce sold in supermarkets. They have recently opened an outpost at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas…but that’s a long way to go for a meatball.
My dear friend Ellen Ray is celebrating a special birthday this month. Chivalry dictates I do not divulge which one. Her husband, Bill Schaap surprised her by securing a table at Rao’s on the night of her birthday. She was thrilled. He announced this in front of me and Soo and we were equally excited for them. Bill then turned to me and stated that the table was for four and that they would like us to join them for the celebration. I calmly accepted this generous invitation but in my mind I was jumping and screaming like those women in the Heineken commercial with the walk in shoe closet. I was juiced.
Bill’s brother, the late, great sports reporter, Dick Schaap, was a regular at Rao’s for years before his untimely death in 2001. There is an entire booth decorated with pictures of Dick in the dining room. He is sorely missed at Rao’s. Bill, not one to call in favors that often, decided to request a table at Rao’s for Ellen, so Frankie-No, of course, said yes.
There is a bit of a side story to this tale. The weeks from mid-November till now have been very busy ones and I have had a little trouble organizing my non-work time. I have been a little socially scatterbrained. On the night of the Rao’s invite, I was splitting seconds to get the gift, get showered, dressed and in a cab to travel uptown and arrive on time. I was very pleased with myself that I arrived with 15 minutes to spare…I was early alright…15 minutes and 5 days early. I got my days mixed up…relayed that bad info to Soo…and when she arrived on 114th street fresh off the First Avenue bus…let’s just say my shirt, tie and fancy fedora was not enough to charm her out of the well deserved chewing out that was coming my way. Express.
Flash forward to last night, Ellen’s actual birthday. We met at their apartment and toasted with champagne and caviar. After we watched the Bobby Flay vs. Rao’s Feast of the Seven Fishes Throwdown as a warm up, we were on our way. Seated at Rao’s, I was drinking a Chianti as Joe “The Manager”, sitting at our table, was giving us our options in rapid fire staccato like a Thompson sub-machine gun. First he told us the appetizers…fish salad, mozzarella en carozzo, baked clams, salad….then the pasta options…bolognese, broccoli rabe and sausage, pomodoro, arabiata….with what kind of pasta….orrechiette, ziti, penne…shells…what entree….shrimp… fra diavolo, scampi, oreganata…steak….veal….chops…picatta…pizziola, marsala…and on and on. It was an encyclopedia of Italian preparations of classic ingredients. We made our choices and took a deep breath anticipating the onslaught.
The food that arrived in well spaced waves was good…really good…but surprisingly did not blow me away. I am an Italian boy who grew up in the borough with the most Italians in the world per capita, save Italy…. I know my people’s food. I was expecting to be transported to the Amalfi Coast…instead…I was back on Staten Island. This is in no way a knock on the esteemed Rao’s…the food was excellent for what it was…but it was nothing that cannot be had at several of the old Italian neighborhood restaurants in the boroughs. I have had similar meals in each of the five boroughs and especially in my home town where there are so many good Italian restaurants that its hard to find anything else to eat there.
Rao’s and it’s history are a New York institution, and deservedly so. But, the hype far outweighs the reality when it comes to the food. My real message is that you should not feel badly if you never get to eat there. I am happy that I did and I would do it again if given the chance but not because the food was far and away the best Italian food in the city. I would enjoy visiting Rao’s again because the atmosphere was fun, the room was alive with history and the people who own and run the place treat their customers like family. It was a real old New York experience but if you are dying for a frutte di mare that will light you up, I can recommend a dozen places that do it just like Rao’s…just without the wait of a lifetime.