Drew Barrymore sits nestled into the cozy booth to the right of the front door, looking luminous. Farther back into the restaurant, Marisa Tomei has pulled up a chair and joined a duo of men, delighting them with her throaty laugh. A waiter glides to our table, looking like a stand-in for Stanley Tucci, the resemblance profound enough to include the disquieting nervous energy and intensity of stare. "Of course you'll want to try our famous meatballs," he says.
The restaurant is Rao's, the new Hollywood iteration of the legendary 117-year-old New York eatery. The Rao's in East Harlem is famous for many things: its clientele (rich, famous, powerful), its old-world New York atmosphere, and the fact that you and I will never, ever be able to eat there. It's considered the toughest reservation in the country, and loyal patrons are said to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a guaranteed weekly table.
Rao's in Hollywood has yet to garner the kind of following that might allow it to charge you for the very privilege of having a table held in your name, though you will have to provide a credit card number if you want a reservation. For now, those reservations are fairly easy to come by, despite the fact that, as in New York, the restaurant is open only on weekdays.
The easy reservations might have something to do with the odd location, or the frankly exorbitant prices. Or maybe it's the fact that the fantasy Rao's is trying to peddle — that romantic, bygone New York Italian charm — barely resonates in a place with its own rich, glamorous and very accessible history.
In fact, Rao's has plunked itself in an interesting psychic space, a kind of meta-conundrum: It is a copy of an original that everyone else has already copied.
Located down a dimly lit side street far away from any kind of commercial action, the restaurant feels instantly familiar: dark wood booths with red cushions; white tablecloths; table lamps made from Rao's brand pasta sauce jars; golden oldies playing on the vintage jukebox; walls covered with signed celebrity photos (Martha Stewart shares wall space with the actor who played "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero on The Sopranos, along with many others). Walking into Rao's is like wading into a thick nostalgia soup. Ninety percent of the red-sauce restaurants in the country look like this, and while it may be true that those places were imitating the original Rao's, that doesn't stop this restaurant from feeling like a cliché.
All this could still be a rollicking good time but for one big problem: For the quality of food, this place is just stupidly expensive. I mean, I get that we're paying for the Drew Barrymore sightings (even if, really, this is a city where catching a celebrity at dinner is pretty common), but what the hell is Drew Barrymore paying for?
How expensive is it? I wouldn't usually waste your time listing prices in the context of a review, but here I'll make an exception, in part because these prices aren't available on Rao's website. So you have no real way of knowing ahead of time that you'll be paying $33 for an antipasti board that consists of some cubed blue and Parmesan cheeses, a hunk of unexceptional brie, some slices of prosciutto and salami, two garlicky tomato bruschetta and some roasted red peppers. Or $49 for veal Parmesan. Or $28 for an eggplant Parmesan that consists of three rounds of eggplant, breaded and fried and topped with tomato and mozzarella, a perfectly decent and also perfectly unexceptional dish, with neither the gooey glory of the straight-up, slut-tastic version you might find, oh, anywhere in America, nor the careful seasoning, fresh herbs or quality tang you might get from a place with higher ambitions.
This is true of much of the food here. Those meatballs, which are certainly impressive in size, are good in the way any unobjectionable meatball is good, but they're heavy on the breadcrumbs and not really exciting except as lowest common denominator comfort food. They seem like a relative bargain at $16 for two, until you realize that they really need a side of spaghetti marinara to go with them in order to be enjoyed properly, and that will cost $23 — and now you've spent $39 on spaghetti and meatballs.
This is not to say there's nothing good to eat at Rao's. In fact, most of what I ate there was passable.
The pastas are exactly what you might expect them to be: carb-heavy bowls of penne drenched in creamy vodka sauce, or linguine with clams that tastes like, you know, linguine and clams — garlicky, oily, a little one-note but otherwise fine.
Desserts, particularly the cheesecake and cannolis, are kinda great in their throwback simplicity and quality.
And there are even dishes that I'd return for, which are possibly worth the price. The lemon chicken was, at $26, by far the best thing I ate at Rao's. Chopped into hunks, its charred skin crisped just right, the lemon sauce completely uncompromising in its goal of delivering as much puckery goodness as possible to the meat, the dish succeeds wonderfully where many others here fail: as a platonic ideal of uncomplicated, upscale, old-school Italian cooking.
Yet for every dish I had at Rao's that worked on that basic level, there was a dish like the cold seafood salad (also $26), a huge plate of weirdly soft calamari rings and lobster hunks in a lemon vinaigrette, which tasted as if all the ocean had somehow been sucked out of the seafood, leaving a mass of sad, white foodstuff that could have been manufactured in a laboratory. Or the Caprese salad, which reminded me of the bad old days, when Caprese usually consisted of texturally challenged mozzarella and tomatoes served too cold, the combination somehow bringing out the ingredients' blandness rather than their attributes.
After visiting Rao's in Hollywood, I understand better than ever the appeal of the East Harlem location — all that nostalgia, all those celebrities.
But here's the thing: If you were dining in Hollywood and in the mood for some Grade A nostalgia, you'd have a lot of great options to choose from. And if celebrities are what you're looking for, well, it is Hollywood.
Rao's is perhaps a fun endeavor if you have money to burn and are curious about the legacy of the original. But for throw-back glamour, allow me to suggest something more location-specific — Musso & Frank, perhaps. For questionable but inexpensive old-school Italian? At Miceli's, "Hollywood's oldest Italian restaurant," you can get veal Parm for $18.50. It even comes with a side of spaghetti.
RAO'S HOLLYWOOD | One star | 1006 Seward St., Hlywd. | (323) 962-7267 | raosla.com | Mon.-Fri., 6-10:30 p.m. | Entrees, $25-$49 | Full bar | Valet and street parking