Last night was cold and rainy, with hail, in New York City. It seemed like a good night to attempt something I've wanted to do since I was little: eat at Rao's.
I grew up eating the restaurant's famous bottled tomato sauce on pasta my mom made at home and when I moved to New York five years ago and started covering food and restaurants at New York magazine, I heard about how impossible it is to get a table at the 119-year-old, family-owned East Harlem institution. "You would have better luck getting invited to dinner at the White House than getting a proper reservation at this wiseguy Italian joint," New York reported.
My girlfriend Emma and I got dressed up and took a cab up to 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue. The taxi driver asked if we were going to the restaurant—he'd apparently transported similarly dressed patrons there before.
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"Every table has been booked every night for the past 38 years."
Luckily the restaurant was open (it had been closed when I attempted this once before), since when I'd called earlier in the day the line was either busy or, when I did get through, played a recording stating, "Thank you for calling Rao's. At this time, the reservation book for 2015 is closed. Unfortunately, we will not be accepting any reservations left on the phone as a message or reservations in person coming to the restaurants. Thank you for your call. Have a great holiday season and a happy and healthy new year."
The prospect of actually having dinner there didn't seem good, but I thought it was still worth a shot and my wonderfully tolerant girlfriend was willing to go on an adventure with me. We figured that if we were turned away, Patsy's Pizzeria was a decent backup. (I should add that in a couple of days I'm leaving for three weeks in Tanzania where I'm climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, so this was a bit of a special farewell dinner.)
The first thing I noticed when we walked in was how bright the place is. It may be the brightest fine-dining establishment I've ever been to. The second thing I noticed was all the Christmas decorations (a story I'd read said they stay up year-round). Every chair at every table was full and the bar was crowded. An older bespectacled man sat on a stool in the corner, surveying the room, and motioned to suggest we sit at the two stools open next to him.
"Whose table are you at?" he asked. I said we weren't at a table and had stopped in for a drink. (The tables, as I knew, are all "owned" by regulars who come themselves, invite friends, or donate the table to charity auctions where just the reservation regularly sells for thousands).
After we settled in and ordered a negroni and a white wine, the gray-haired man asked how we'd heard about the place. "How haven't I heard about it?" I responded. I explained that I'd been eating the tomato sauce since I was a kid.
"The sauce has done well for us," he said. It was clear that this was a guy worth knowing. He introduced himself as Frank Pellegrino, one of the owners (I'd heard he's known as "Frankie No" since he has to decline so many requests for reservations). He said he's there every weeknight (Rao's is closed on Saturday and Sunday) except when he's on the West Coast visiting Rao's locations in Las Vegas and Hollywood, which his son manages.
Frank Pellegrino and executive chef Dino Gatto.
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I asked about the reservation policy, and Frank said he started assigning tables to steady customers after a three-star review from the New York Times' Mimi Sheraton in 1977 made it nearly impossible to deal with demand.
The tables are "owned" by regulars and "no one gives them up," says Rao's owner Frank Pellegrino. "In every three-month period, I see all my clients. And now I'm dealing with their children and grandchildren."
"No one gives them up," he says. "Every table has been booked every night for the past 38 years. There's weeklies, biweeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies, so in every three-month period, I see all my clients. And now I'm dealing with their children and grandchildren."
So how does someone get a table?
Frank looked around the room. "That first table there, they gave their table to this group at the bar. These guys are all executives from PepsiCo. If you have a table, you can give it to your friends, your business associates, or to a charity auction. I had Bobby Flay, Michael Romano, a whole bunch of big chefs last week and I didn' t know they're coming. I never know who's coming in. That's what makes it wonderful. It's serendipity. There's no grand design or plan. The only caveat is if you're not going to use your table and no one else is going to use that table, that's when you call me."
Getting in touch with Frank isn't especially easy, though. He doesn't have a cell phone and "doesn't touch computers." So when people want to contact him, "they call everybody else who's associated with me and then they come and say, 'Frankie, so-and-so called,' and I'll say, 'Okay, call them back, lemme talk to them.'"
We survey the room. "These are my four big tables and then I have six booths."
So there's only one two-top, right?
"One deuce," Emma—who's in graduate school and until recently worked part-time as a restaurant hostess—corrects me.
"One deuce," Pelligrino said. "And if you're willing to wait, I'll feed you at that deuce."
There's only one table for two in the restaurant. "And if you're willing to wait, I'll feed you at that deuce," Pellegrino says.
Hallelujah! Fifteen minutes at the bar with Frank Pelligrino, and we'd cracked the impossible code of getting a table at Rao's.
We were in for a wait, but didn't care. We'd been promised a table.
"This is Vinny Sciortino," Frank says. "He's my tailor. Vinny makes all my clothes. He's great." (Frank's herringbone jacket is especially handsome.) Sciortino, who has tailor shops in Red Bank, NJ, and New York City, says he's making suits for Frank for 27 years.
"He's like a second father," Sciortino says.
"I am that old! I could be your father!" says Frank, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year.
Sciortino, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday at Rao's in Los Angeles, gets a table about once a month, but the days vary. Tonight he has a Monday. Next month he has a Thursday. Like the rest of the table owners, he gets his assignments at the beginning of the year. He's been coming here—"coming home," as he calls it—for 25 years.
"And this is Tony Tantillo. He's on CBS every day, cooking with his daughter," Frank says, introducing us to another friend who's come up to the bar. "Listen, Tantillo. I gotta tell you. You're too good-looking. You're too handsome."
"I'm not as debonair as you, Frank," says Tantillo, whose cooking segments appear on the 5 and 12 o'clock news. He and Frank spent time together in Italy, where Frank met some cousins for the first time. When Tantillo pointed out how beautiful Italy was, Frank said he'd rather be in East Harlem.
"I need your help," he tells Tantillo. "You remember my cousin? He sent me an invitation to his son's wedding and I need you to interpret the letter. I want to send him them something." Tantillo speaks fluent Italian. Frank doesn't.
"Anthony! This is Anthony Abbot," Frank says. "He's a member of Stanwich, a great golf club. He invites me to play golf with him." Abbot went on a golf trip with 11 other guys 20 years ago. Frank was one of them, and when names were drawn out of a hat, he and Abbot were matched up.
"We laughed and cried for two days and at the end, he says to me, why don't you come by the restaurant?" Abbot tells me.
In the old days, Abbot says, Frank used to open the reservation book on a quarterly basis and when he came by to get his table assignment, Donald Trump was waiting in line outside the door with other regulars.
"This was in January, and Frank said, 'Can you come here May 6?' I didn't know anything. So he writes the date on a business card and hands it to me and says, 'Two things just happened: One, you got a reservation at Rao's which is no small deal. Two, you can always get a reservation at Rao's. I love you. [Abbot makes a kissing sound.] Both cheeks."
Frank turns back to us and starts crooning Stevie Wonder: "I just called to say, I love you. I just called to say how much I care. I just called to say I love you, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart" he sings melodiously to Emma, who's clearly smitten.
As it turns out, Frank sang in a group called the Holidaes in the 1960s. "I was an old doo-wop guy," he says. "I get Billy Joel, Sting, Jimmy Fallon in here. Jimmy Fallon loves to sing doo-wops! So whenever he's here, I start singing, and boom, he jumps up and starts singing. And before you know it the whole room is going nuts."
After the musical interlude, Frank's back to making sure his guests are happy: "Give Tony a drink, give this guy a drink, give that guy a drink," he says to his bartender (who's also named Tony).
"Tony, who's this kid?" he asks, pointing to a preppy young guy in a blazer sitting on the stool next to Frank's. "He's a neighborhood guy," Tony tells him. It turns out Kevin has lived five blocks away from Rao's for all 23 years of his life. He likes to come in for a drink from time to time.
"Congressman! Does Hillary have a shot?" Frank asks U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, who represents the 9th District of New Jersey and is with a group that was given a table by its regular owner. "Bill is a Democrat like I am," Frank tells me. He points out his picture with Hillary Clinton on the wall, alongside the other photos of celebrities who have dined here. I say I don't think I've ever met a congressman out in the world. "Come here! You'll meet them!" he says.
Last week U.S. Rep. Peter King, from New York, was in. He's a Republican, I point out.
"Good guy. I like him. He's okay. I could sit with Peter King and say what I like and what I don't like. I'm a political junkie," Frank says. There's a letter from President George H.W. Bush on the wall. Frank doesn't discriminate.
He checks in on another couple of tables: "How are you? Did you enjoy? Everything good?"
It's 10:20 p.m. We've been here since 7:45, but the hours have gone by in a flash and I have no desire to give up my bar stool and leave the center of all the action.
"Give my girlfriend a drink," Frank tells his bartender, referring to my actual girlfriend. "Give my friend a drink," he says, referring to me. Emma says she would come back here just so she could sit at the bar and hang out with Frank.
"And you would be protected," he tells her. "I am a gentleman and I only allow gentlemen. If anybody is stupid, I would be right there. I only allow ladies and gentlemen. I don't want anything else."
What about Frank's own companion?
"I am married 46 years," he says. "Same woman. She's great. I love my wife. 46 years. Does she come here? No. I don't want her here. When I come here, I work. What am I going to do? Sit with her at the bar? I have people I have to talk to, things I have to do."
"I say to my wife, 'I wish I had a Rao's to go to. I wish I had a Rao's to go hang out in, to go sit at the bar and meet wonderful people, and then sit down and have a wonderful meal," he says. I can see why.
"Just think about what happened while you were here," he tells me, putting his hand on my forearm for emphasis. "You met my tailor. You met Tony Tantillo. You met Tony Abbot." (I met a trio of Tonys, if you include Tony the bartender.) "You met all these people. You met the congressman. You're seeing Rao's." And because it's so bright, which Frank says is because "it adds to the energy of the room," I really am seeing everything.
Someone brings over two copies of the Rao's cookbook for Frank to sign, which he points out is the second best-selling cookbook in the history of Random House. It seems like an appropriate moment to ask what we should have for dinner.
Frank Pellegrino with his second cookbook.
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"You cannot make a mistake," he says. "I'm in my kitchen every day. I work with my waitstaff every day. And it's gotta be good. It's gotta be right. My vegetables, my meat, my fish—everything is delivered every day fresh. And we look at it. If it's not what I want, it gets sent back. If it's not the best, do not send it to me. I don't want it. I won't use it. I want a standing ovation every night. We did a good job today. Tomorrow has to be better. Those are my rules and my staff knows that."
A waiter comes over and says he's setting a table for us. We invite Frank to join us, since it's unclear whether he's eaten tonight, but he politely declines. He says he'll come sit with us later on, but he won't eat.
"How we doing guys? I'm Joe," our waiter says. He sits down at the table. "What we like to do is, we serve everything family-style. For appetizers we have seafood salad, roasted peppers, baked clams, fried calamari, mozzarella in carrozza (that's deep fried), fresh mozzarella and tomato. We could do a salad. I also have mussels in white wine sauce. Those are the appetizers."
I say there are certain things that Emma doesn't eat.
"Can't hear you," he says, pointing to his ear. (Now I understand whom the gruff waiters at Carbone are copying.)
"She doesn't eat shellfish or meat," I say, louder this time. "But I eat everything and I want to try what you're known for."
"I'll take care of that," he tells me. "You have to try one of our meatballs. Do you like fennel? Licorice flavor. We make a filet of sole with white wine and fennel. And what's your name again? I want you to try our lemon chicken. So we're going to do the filet of sole with fennel and the lemon chicken. And the appetizers going to be the seafood salad and the caprese and the pesto pasta you're going to share. Would you like a vegetable? Spinach it is."
And with that, our order was in. The food came out and was delicious, as we expected (especially that meatball—whose sauce tasted just as good as I remembered from my childhood—and the charcoal broiled lemon chicken).
But we'd already experienced the main attraction before we even sat down.
Frank comes over and sings along with the song playing on the jukebox, Jack Greene's "There Goes My Everything." He orders us a slice of cheesecake.
"One more and we're leaving," Frank tells his disc jockey, Hilton, who celebrated his nine-year work anniversary a couple of weeks ago. Hilton calls up Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and by the second verse, we're all singing along.
At 12:15am, the cab Tony called for us arrives. We're the last ones out, besides Frank and the staff.
"You've been thrown out of better joints than this," he tell us.
I don't think I'll ever find a better joint anywhere in the world.
I hope Frank reads this, but since he "doesn't touch computers," I'll just have to hope one of his associates lets him know how much fun I had with him.
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Sam Dangremond is a Contributing Digital Editor at Town & Country, where he covers men's style, cocktails, travel, and the social scene.