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.
It was in this teeming, clamorous tenement world that Charles Rao grew up. And it was here that, in 1896, he and his wife, Francesca, known as “Mama Jake”, bought a corner saloon and named it Rao’s. Charles died young in 1909. His brother Joseph took over and ran the joint until he _died in 1930. Prohibition had been in effect since 1920 and still had three years to go, but Charlie’s sons Louis and Vincent inherited a thriving business. By this time, little Angelo Urgitano was running around 114th Street. “His father was Tommy Cheesecake,” says Frankie. “He got the name when he called up to a girl in a window and said, ‘Hey, give me five cents for some cheesecake.'” Angelo: “Right up the street, we had _Il Milionario—The Millionaire. Prohibition made him rich. He made wine in a cellar he dug under this sidewalk. He had a daughter who was so ugly you couldn’t believe. Nobody would marry her. He had to pay a guy $20,000 to marry this broad.” Frankie: “This was the big hangout. The boys would come in for a drink, then head downtown to the Copa to pick up girls.” Angelo: “Then we’d bring ’em up here.” Frankie: “But the girls from the neighborhood, that was different. You start to go with a girl, your mother and father know it before you do.” Angelo: “This was a village.” Yeah, if you call 80,000 a village. That’s how many Italians there were in East Harlem in 1930.
Every July, the neighborhood celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel—the patron saint of Polla—grew bigger. For ten days, thousands of pilgrims swarmed the streets. Penitents trudged barefoot behind the statue of the Madonna, her gown festooned with dollars. For most, however, the feast was lights, gaming, music, wine—and food. After Louis Rao died in 1958, his brother Vincent had dared to make a change: He set up a barbecue grill on the sidewalk. Soon Rao’s had a reputation for Vincent’s steaks and chops—and on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the place got positively overwhelmed. When the head cook left in 1974, Vincent begged his wife, Anna, to help him in the kitchen during the celebrations. “Just this once,” said Anna Pellegrino Rao—but her food was so good that the regulars refused to let her quit. Anna’s nephew Frankie Pellegrino was a professional singer until he was 29; then he, too, was dragooned into helping out at Rao’s for the Feast period—in his case, waiting tables. Like his aunt, he never left. (He never left showbiz, either; he’s acted in _Goodfellas _and other movies, and sings with the legendary Rao’s jukebox almost every night.)
For a chef, Aunt Anna cut quite a figure: white cashmere slacks and turtleneck, pearls, gold sandals, tinted glasses, an ever-present gold-and-ivory cigarette holder—in the kitchen, as she cooked. And because she cooked, the place soon got to be packed every night, five nights a week. (The Raos believed restaurateurs should actually have a life, so they closed on weekends.) Then the _New York Times _fell into their life like a bomb. On Friday, August 19, 1977, the _Times _restaurant critic, Mimi Sheraton, gave Rao’s three stars, calling it “the sort of place every reviewer longs to come upon”, and praising its “simple, honest, and completely delicious Italian food”. The review ended with one of the understatements of all time: “Patience will be required when making reservations because the place is so small.” The phone started ringing that evening, and it was still ringing on Monday. By coincidence, the family was on their annual vacation at the time, and they figured all the fuss would die down by the time they returned—but when they got back, the phone was still ringing. People were begging for reservations three, four months in advance. Soon Manhattan sophisticates were overrunning the joint. The food was wonderful, sure, but there must have been an element, too, of borrowed innocence. Rao’s was so real, and its realness was so sweet; it offered something cosmopolites had long since given up, or had never known.
Vincent Rao imagined the future: The fancy people would take over—regulars were not the sort to plan dinner three months ahead—and then the fancy people would run on to their next infatuation, and Rao’s would be screwed. They worked out an understanding with their regulars: Tony and Larry, this is your table every other Tuesday, okay? No matter what. You just come. If you’re out of town, you send your ma, whatever, and we feed you. From then on, every table at Rao’s has been “owned”, every night, by a regular customer. Some are monthly, some bimonthly, some even quarterly, but every one is taken, and no, please don’t ask. Some of the fancy people have worked their way up to regular status—Woody Allen, et al—but they are comfortably outnumbered by Johnny Cigars, the tobacconist; Johnny Roastbeef, the deli guy; Father Pete Rofrano, a man of the cloth. Vincent died in 1994 at the age of 87, in the house next door to Rao’s, where he was born, raised, and married. Anna followed him six weeks later—and Frankie Pellegrino shouldered the daunting responsibility of keeping everything the same. He has done a good job—though he has also figured out how to capitalize on the Rao’s mystique with the just-published Rao’s Cookbook, a CD called An Evening at Rao’s, and a line of very good, very expensive Rao’s brand sauces.
The place is filling up. “Hey, Ron!” calls Frankie. An elegantly dressed guy, maybe a lawyer, comes over. “Tom, I want you to meet my partner, my cousin Ron Straci.” And damned if he isn’t a lawyer by day—but he does manage to be at Rao’s several times a week. The aromas flooding out of the kitchen are almost unbearably seductive. A plate of roasted peppers with pine nuts and raisins goes by. A soup of escarole and white beans. Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage. Pork chops with pickled peppers. The famous lemon chicken—which Mimi Sheraton called the restaurant’s “single most unforgettable main course”. I can’t stand it. Finally, Frank Pellegrino, Jr., sits down with us. This is how you order at Rao’s. There’s no menu. You talk up a meal with Frankie Junior. Nicky the Vest will make you a cocktail, bring you some wine.
I ask Angelo, “So what should I eat tonight?” “I tell you what you don’t eat. Don’t eat the mozzarell’ in carrozza.” “Why?” “It’s terrible. They use American mozzarella. They use sliced white bread. And then they put gravy on it.” (Gravy, in East Harlem English, means tomato sauce.) “Okay, so what?” “The pasta with sausage and cabbage ain’t bad. But they put too much tomato. I make it much better.” We end up with seafood salad, fried calamari, roasted peppers, that mozzarella in carrozza (not so bad after all), the sausage and cabbage pasta, the broccoli rabe pasta, a steak pizzaiola, a veal chop with sweet and hot peppers, “shrimp scampi”, the lemon chicken, a bottle of chianti, cheesecake, peach grappa, then anisette.
It’s getting loud. Frankie’s going to be singing with the jukebox pretty soon. Guys kiss guys—straight guys; it’s an Italy thing. No celebrities tonight. But what a crowd. It’s fun to guess: Okay, this guy is New York’s richest plumbing contractor. He’s what, 55? And the—may I say “babe”?— is 30, tops, and she is like pressure-injected into this sparkly red garment. Meanwhile, old family dishes of such ordinariness as to have achieved extraordinary purity are still flying out of the kitchen—veal francese, pasta with lentils, filet of sole in lemon sauce. “Angelo,” says Frankie, “never thinks anything is going to turn out right. Me, I’m the opposite. Three years ago, this place burned out. I thought, There it goes. But what do you think happened? All my regulars, they’re calling me, ‘Frankie, what can we do?’ That’s the way Rao’s is. We’re about family. History. Respect. You come in here, you leave your troubles outside. You’re home. We don’t charge much. After the fire, I added two tables. Charles Rao could walk in here and not know the difference. This just happened to us, you know. We didn’t try for anything special. All this”—he sweeps a hand towards the now-full tables, the very rich and the not-at-all-rich regulars laughing, singing—”we didn’t do this. We just didn’t change. Sometimes, it amazes me. Don’t ask me who I told they couldn’t get in today. I wish I could be Frankie Yes, you know? I don’t like to turn people away. I wish everybody could share this experience. But then it wouldn’t be Rao’s anymore.”