This is a story about a restaurant you'll never get into. Or, well, maybe you could if you knew the right people. Is Woody Allen a close personal friend of yours? Is Ronald Perelman? Alfonse D'Amato? Cindy Crawford? Joe Ciccone from Bayside? No?
Then, as Frankie No probably says into the phone a hundred times a day, "No".
The name of the restaurant is Rao's. It has stood at the corner of Pleasant Avenue and 114th Street in East Harlem since 1896.
Twenty-six years I lived on the island of Manhattan, and I never heard of Pleasant Avenue or Rao's. East Harlem was a realm of dark, rain-slicked streets, gutted tenements, guns, drugs, poverty, defeat.
Some of that is still true. Acres of grimly identical public housing projects (the fruit of postwar social engineering) keep East Harlem ugly and poor. The building of these projects broke up the biggest Italian enclave in the United States, and hence one of the most powerful voting blocs, says Frank Pellegrino, the proprietor of Rao's. Puerto Ricans came in, and Mexicans, Africans, and African-Americans. Tens of thousands of Italian-Americans left.
Today, sidewalks bustle with people of every hue, friends holler greetings in Creole, English, Arabic, Wolof, a dozen dialects of Spanish. But not Italian. The remnants of that vanished world are sparse: The likes of Mario's Delicatessen, with salami and prosciutto hanging from the ceiling, are far out-numbered by those of Sandy Restaurant Lechonera—Cuchifrito.
The Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel stares down on 115th Street with ave maria spelled out in soot-crusted light bulbs. The great baroque portal of the church is locked.
But imagine a Sunday morning here a hundred years ago. The pews are full. Our Lady has 50,000 parishioners, nearly all Italian. Many of them helped build this church, which was completed in 1884. They carry this 17th-century architectural style, and the ancient community it embodies, in their blood. Under the clanging bells, they pour out. The air fills with intensities: garlic, olive oil, bread. These aromas, too, they carry in their blood. But what they eat now—chicken, meat, pasta—is the stuff of dreams. In the old country, pasta was a luxury; meat almost unimaginable.
A century passes. The dreams, the aromas, the Italians disperse to the four winds, and a world disappears. And yet not quite: In one small restaurant, they have remained miraculously alive, thanks to a family that has simply refused to let the past slip into the past.
There's no door to the kitchen at Rao's (pronounced ray-o's). At five in the afternoon, the scents of those long-ago Sundays billow into the tiny brown dining room. The six booths and four tables are empty. Nicky Zaloumis, known as Nicky the Vest because he wears a different one every night, polishes glasses. A tall, silver-haired, arrow-thin man in a black pin-striped suit stands at the bar, militarily erect, smoking one Parliament after another.
"Every street was its own paese", say Frankie as he slips into dialect: "Hun-sixth [106th] was Sardi. Hun-seven was Sicilians. Hun-twelfth, it was mostly Neapolitans." Frankie calls to the tall man at the bar. "Angelo! Come join us!" He does so. "Tom," says Frankie, "meet Angelo Urgitano." "A pleasure," whispers Angelo. He lost his larynx some years ago to throat cancer, but his handshake is strong. Frankie to Angelo: "I was telling Tom about the old neighborhood." Then to me: "The food was everywhere. We had stores for everything. Pushcarts. Pizzerie with maybe four tables. Cheesemakers—ricotta, ricotta salata, scamorza. Curly's Pork Store made beautiful sopressata and salami. Ice cream parlors. Pastry shops. One shop sold nothing but salt cod and stockfish." Angelo: "The best hot dog stands in the city." Frankie: "The food we serve at Rao's is what everybody in the neighborhood grew up eating. It's not restaurant food, it's just cucina alla casalinga—home cooking. There used to be dozens of joints like this. Nobody was a trained chef. My Aunt Anna wasn't trained as a chef." Angelo: "She wasn't trained as a bitch either." Frankie: "She was a very strong woman." Angelo: "She was a bitch is what she was." These guys go back a long way.
Who they are goes back even longer, back to before they were born. Few of the hundreds of thousands of southern Italians who came to America after 1850 thought of themselves as Italians. They were Abruzzesi, Calabresi, Napoletani, and their identity was rooted in their paese—their village. In 1860, only 2.5 percent of the people of Italy spoke modern Italian. After centuries of Bourbon feudalism, then decades of revolution and counterrevolution, the Mezzogiorno—the South—in the 1800s was a place of deepening poverty and bitterness. The poorest of the poor, the landless rural peasantry couldn't afford to leave. Those who came to the U.S. were farmers and townsfolk—artisans, storekeepers, butchers, bakers, priests—for whom America had become a mythical paradise.
The Rao family emigrated from Polla, southeast of Naples—a region that is still one of the wildest, most isolated landscapes in Italy. Other Pollesi were already waiting for the Raos in East Harlem, poorer than they had hoped for, yet already richer than they had ever been. They were all a little scared, so they clung together for comfort. They were all a lot excited, so they sang and drank and fought and cooked exuberantly. They had escaped poverty and persecution, so they were happy. A reformer might have looked at their East Harlem and called it a crowded, dirty slum; to them it was more home than home had ever been.