Opened in 1896, Rao’s restaurant is celebrated as one of the oldest family-owned and operated restaurants in the country, still running its original location in East Harlem. What started out at the turn of the century as a 10 table haunt for Italian immigrants, Rao’s in New York is just about impossible to get into now unless you know somebody with “table rights.”
“The restaurant on 114th St. was truly an expression of our household,” says fourth-generation owner Frank Pellegrino Jr., who has served in many capacities at the restaurant including sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, bussing tables and washing dishes. “Our households were tenement buildings. There were 10 people living in my grandfather and great-grandparents’ apartment. You know everybody in the neighborhood, so they’re all sort of extended family. Being introduced into that environment myself as a young boy and growing up in my own family’s household with people constantly coming and going, it was as though we already had a restaurant in our home.”
All that changed in the ’70s, when the legendary Mimi Sheraton gave Rao’s “exquisitely simple Italian cooking” three stars in the New York Times and sent the corner joint into the culinary stratosphere. Open only from Monday through Friday for dinner with the same table count of 10 and closing for two weeks in August, your chances of getting a reservation are right up there with winning the lottery unless you know somebody with “table rights.” While regulars include actors, politicians and sports figures, your best chance is dropping the name of the neighborhood’s plumber or mailman.
“The one thing my father appreciated was the people who supported this place in the early days,” says Pellegrino. “It’s theirs and they will not be displaced. So what my dad managed to do, with as much diplomacy that anybody could muster, was say to those people in that neighborhood at that time – you want this table? This is the night you want to come? That alone filled up 75 percent of our capacity right then and there. The beauty and part of the cache is that these aren’t celebrities or the who’s who. You don’t know if you’re sitting next to the milkman or a titan of business. There might be a rock star at the table next to a plumber or Manny, the neighborhood milkman or Tommy from down the block having a drink with friends. The tables get handed down to children and grandchildren. The close proximity and intimacy of the restaurant makes you part of one large group. All of a sudden you’re not at your table anymore. It naturally turns into a show. Just like when you’re at home having a great time with friends and the next thing you know you’re singing and dancing.”
And while singing was Frank Sr.’s chosen profession, he took a break from performing at the Concord in the Catskills one year to help out at the restaurant as a bartender on The Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel when they were understaffed. He never left. He took the family business to a whole new level. He wrote several cookbooks, launched Rao’s Specialty Foods in 1992, opened a second Rao’s in Las Vegas in 2006 and a third in Hollywood in 2013, making it a little easier for the population to get a taste of their exquisitely simple Italian cooking. His desire to entertain never left him. He went on to appear as FBI Chief Frank Cubitoso on The Sopranos and Johnny Dio in Goodfellas, where he’s seen in the joint flipping a steak on the hotplate. Frank Sr. passed away in 2017.
“He was a really good and an ambitious man,” says Frank Jr., who has the same warmth around the eyes as his father. “But what came first more than anything was sharing in the exuberance of life – people, song, dance, good food – in an environment with no pretenses. And that’s what’s most important to me, building relationships with our guests. We are an extended family. The preservation of that is the foundation of our future success. Keeping that together is my focus. Guests come first, everything else will fall into place.”
The younger Pellegrino invited us into the kitchen to make Sunday gravy, which is only served at the Hollywood location, where the main dining room is an exact replica of the original 10-table restaurant in East Harlem. The weekend maitre’d is Johnny Williams, who played Johnny Roastbeef in Goodfellas. Watch as Pellegrino browns the five different types of meat that go into the recipe with the skill handed down to him by Johnny Dio.
Video by Erik Glode Productions
He graciously shared his family recipe with us:
RECIPE: Sunday Gravy
Makes 21/2 quarts of sauce
1 pound lean beef, such as eye round
1 pound pork tenderloin
1 pound hot or sweet Italian sausage
1 pound beef braciole
1⁄2 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, smashed 1 cup of water
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Three 35-ounce cans San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed with juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper14 meatballs (see Frankie’s Meatballs recipe)2 pounds rigatoni (or your favorite pasta)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley 5 to 6 fresh basil leaves, shredded
Pat all the meat dry with paper towels.
Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot over medium heat and add garlic. Using tongs, add the meats, one type at a time, to the pot. Sear, turning the meat frequently until nicely browned on all sides. Remove each batch and set aside before browning the next batch. As the garlic cloves turn golden brown, remove them from the pan and discard.
In a mixing bowl, combine the water with the tomato paste and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Add to the pot, stirring with a wooden spoon for 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Fill an empty tomato can with water and add to the sauce. Bring the sauce back to a boil.
Return the meat to the pot and season lightly with salt and pepper. Boil for 5 minutes.
Reduce to a simmer, partially cover, and cook for 2 hours, stirring frequently, until the meat is almost fall-apart tender and the sauce has reduced by about a half. (If the sauce becomes too thick, add water to the desired consistency.)
About 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the rigatoni and cook until al dente.
Transfer the meat to a large serving platter. Ladle the sauce over the meat and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the parsley and a few basil leaves. Cover lightly with aluminum foil and set aside.
Drain the pasta and return it to the pot over high heat. Add 2 cups of the sauce and stir with a wooden spoon to coat.
Transfer the pasta to a large serving bowl and top with the remaining sauce. Garnish with the basil and remaining 1 tablespoon parsley, and serve the meat and pasta while still hot.
RECIPE: Frankie’s Meatballs
Makes 14 Meatballs
1 Jar of 32oz Rao’s Homemade Marinara sauce
1 pound lean ground beef
1⁄2 pound ground veal
1⁄2 pound ground pork
2 large eggs
2 cups plain breadcrumbs
2 cups cold water
1 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
Kosher Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1⁄2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
- In a large mixing bowl, combine beef, veal & pork. Wearing latex gloves, mix the meat with your hands until it is evenly blended.
- Add the eggs, cheese, parsley, minced garlic salt & pepper. Mix again, until the seasonings are evenly incorporated.
- Add the breadcrumbs and mix in thoroughly. Slowly add the cold water, 1⁄4 cup at a time, mixing the water in until the mixture is evenly moist throughout. Shape the mixture into 3-inch balls.
- Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the smashed garlic.
- When the garlic begins to shimmer and turn light brown, remove, and discard.
- Carefully add the meatballs to the pan, working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan.
- When the bottom of each meatball is browned and slightly crisp, about 5 minutes, turn and cook the other side for 5 minutes more.
- Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate.
- Add the meatballs to the sauce for about 30 minutes prior to serving. Serve
hot or use in your favorite recipe.