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Eat Your Heart Out

Rao's Italian Restaurant in New York Is a Dining Experience--for Those Who Can Get In

June 24, 1998|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In this city of riches and earthly rewards, there are symbols of success that tell the world you truly have arrived: box seats at Yankee Stadium; a house in the Hamptons; front row tickets to "The Lion King" on Broadway.

But one of the most coveted symbols of all stands on a bleak street corner in East Harlem, a stone's throw from nowhere. It is Rao's--a 102-year-old Italian restaurant with only 10 tables, a madonna in the front window and an owner who is one of New York's last great maitre d's.

Good luck trying to eat there.

You could have all the patience in the world and still never get a reservation. Open only on weeknights, the place is packed with movie stars and politicians; the bar is jammed with wiseguys and ex-cops. It's a hole-in-the-wall where Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen bring friends, a shrine where the veal is to die for and the seafood salad brings tears to your eyes.

But you aren't getting in. Forget about it. Even Hollywood celebrities with personal connections to the owner can't count on a table. They don't call him "Frankie No" for nothing.

"We never wanted Rao's to be just a business," says Frankie Pellegrino, the dapper, animated man who greets you at the door with a kiss on both cheeks and a heart as big as the sauce pot bubbling on his stove. "We wanted it to be an extension of our home, and I think we've achieved that. The problem is, we can't handle everyone who wants to get in."

Pellegrino, 54, is a generous guy who says he would like to give everyone in New York a seat at Rao's, which his family has owned since 1896. But the place is booked for the rest of 1998, and the only reason the Los Angeles Times can tell you this story is because Frankie made room for a few journalists to help publicize his "Rao's Cookbook." It's an offer you don't refuse in this town.

Imagine a kitchen that serves mouthwatering food and a bartender who treats you like family (they call him Nicky Vest, after the colorful vests--70 and counting--that customers have given him over the years). Picture a dining room that turns into a nightclub, an opera or an oldies show in the blink of an eye, while you settle in for a three- to four-hour dinner.

There's just one nightly seating at Rao's, so you never have to rush. And if you feel like flirting with someone in the next booth, buona fortuna. When the party finally ends at 2 a.m., you've shed your inhibitions--for a few hours, at least--and the last thing you remember is a boozy, wall-shaking chorus of "Up on the Roof" that Frankie leads before closing the joint.

Where Johnny Roastbeef

and Wall Street Harmonize

*

Where else can you find a paisan like Frankie Nose (so named for his ample schnoz) hanging out with Johnny Roastbeef, Sonny Bamboo and other New York characters, while across the room a bunch of Wall Street big shots drink Grappa like it was lemonade and strangers in the night sing Sinatra 'til they drop?

At Rao's, you check your paranoia at the door. A guest once left his new car running outside on a darkened street and returned to find it intact. There's a guardian angel watching over the place, no matter how mean the nearby streets may be. And through it all--from the calamari to the camaraderie--there's a sense that you've wandered back in time to a lost world.

Once, there were saloons just like this in cities all over America. Places where people knew you and your cousins, poured you a drink and fed you. Most are long gone, victims of a homogenized world. But the tradition lives at Frankie's, where the tin ceiling never glitters, the wooden booths darken with age and Christmas decorations hang year-round over the bar.

"How do you get a table?" asked a columnist in a clipping taped to Rao's front wall. "This is a place where you just can't go, so forget about it."

In extreme cases, begging pays off. Mega-Realtor Steven Witkoff got a reservation but only after months of persistent phone calls . . . and a gift of chocolate truffles to Frankie's aunt. Now the Tuesday night regular feels like a made man; at a recent fund-raiser, he auctioned off his table for six--for one night-- for $7,600.

The rest of us can only grumble . . . and order in pizza.

Rao's got hot after the New York Times "discovered" the restaurant in a review in 1977. Pellegrino's first loyalty was to friends and neighborhood characters who had been patronizing the place for years, and you'll still find some at the bar on most nights. But celebrities jumped on the bandwagon bigtime, and Frankie has his hands full trying to accommodate them.

He's also juggling careers. A gifted actor, Pellegrino would love to spend less time at Rao's and more on his movie work, which has included roles in "GoodFellas" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery" plus HBO films on John Gotti and Jackie Presser. Yet the family business--and his roots--keep pulling him back.

"I'm beat," he said one night, slumping in a booth after 12 hours on a movie set. "But I gotta be here. I got friends here. That's life."

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