Eat Your Heart Out

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this city of riches and earthly rewards, there are symbols of success that tell the world you truly have arrived: box seats at Yankee Stadium; a house in the Hamptons; front row tickets to "The Lion King" on Broadway.

But one of the most coveted symbols of all stands on a bleak street corner in East Harlem, a stone's throw from nowhere. It is Rao's--a 102-year-old Italian restaurant with only 10 tables, a madonna in the front window and an owner who is one of New York's last great maitre d's.

Good luck trying to eat there.

You could have all the patience in the world and still never get a reservation. Open only on weeknights, the place is packed with movie stars and politicians; the bar is jammed with wiseguys and ex-cops. It's a hole-in-the-wall where Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen bring friends, a shrine where the veal is to die for and the seafood salad brings tears to your eyes.

But you aren't getting in. Forget about it. Even Hollywood celebrities with personal connections to the owner can't count on a table. They don't call him "Frankie No" for nothing.

"We never wanted Rao's to be just a business," says Frankie Pellegrino, the dapper, animated man who greets you at the door with a kiss on both cheeks and a heart as big as the sauce pot bubbling on his stove. "We wanted it to be an extension of our home, and I think we've achieved that. The problem is, we can't handle everyone who wants to get in."

Pellegrino, 54, is a generous guy who says he would like to give everyone in New York a seat at Rao's, which his family has owned since 1896. But the place is booked for the rest of 1998, and the only reason the Los Angeles Times can tell you this story is because Frankie made room for a few journalists to help publicize his "Rao's Cookbook." It's an offer you don't refuse in this town.

Imagine a kitchen that serves mouthwatering food and a bartender who treats you like family (they call him Nicky Vest, after the colorful vests--70 and counting--that customers have given him over the years). Picture a dining room that turns into a nightclub, an opera or an oldies show in the blink of an eye, while you settle in for a three- to four-hour dinner.

There's just one nightly seating at Rao's, so you never have to rush. And if you feel like flirting with someone in the next booth, buona fortuna. When the party finally ends at 2 a.m., you've shed your inhibitions--for a few hours, at least--and the last thing you remember is a boozy, wall-shaking chorus of "Up on the Roof" that Frankie leads before closing the joint.

Where Johnny Roastbeef

and Wall Street Harmonize

*

Where else can you find a paisan like Frankie Nose (so named for his ample schnoz) hanging out with Johnny Roastbeef, Sonny Bamboo and other New York characters, while across the room a bunch of Wall Street big shots drink Grappa like it was lemonade and strangers in the night sing Sinatra 'til they drop?

At Rao's, you check your paranoia at the door. A guest once left his new car running outside on a darkened street and returned to find it intact. There's a guardian angel watching over the place, no matter how mean the nearby streets may be. And through it all--from the calamari to the camaraderie--there's a sense that you've wandered back in time to a lost world.

Once, there were saloons just like this in cities all over America. Places where people knew you and your cousins, poured you a drink and fed you. Most are long gone, victims of a homogenized world. But the tradition lives at Frankie's, where the tin ceiling never glitters, the wooden booths darken with age and Christmas decorations hang year-round over the bar.

"How do you get a table?" asked a columnist in a clipping taped to Rao's front wall. "This is a place where you just can't go, so forget about it."

In extreme cases, begging pays off. Mega-Realtor Steven Witkoff got a reservation but only after months of persistent phone calls . . . and a gift of chocolate truffles to Frankie's aunt. Now the Tuesday night regular feels like a made man; at a recent fund-raiser, he auctioned off his table for six--for one night-- for $7,600.

The rest of us can only grumble . . . and order in pizza.

Rao's got hot after the New York Times "discovered" the restaurant in a review in 1977. Pellegrino's first loyalty was to friends and neighborhood characters who had been patronizing the place for years, and you'll still find some at the bar on most nights. But celebrities jumped on the bandwagon bigtime, and Frankie has his hands full trying to accommodate them.

He's also juggling careers. A gifted actor, Pellegrino would love to spend less time at Rao's and more on his movie work, which has included roles in "GoodFellas" and "Manhattan Murder Mystery" plus HBO films on John Gotti and Jackie Presser. Yet the family business--and his roots--keep pulling him back.

"I'm beat," he said one night, slumping in a booth after 12 hours on a movie set. "But I gotta be here. I got friends here. That's life."

Those who have reveled at Rao's include Billy Crystal, Beverly Sills, Cindy Crawford, Tony Bennett, Nick Pileggi, Claus von Bulow, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, John F. Kennedy Jr., Sharon Stone, Fran Drescher, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro and Bobby Bonilla.

Some don't get in right away. Just ask James Caan.

He stars in the upcoming "Mickey Blue Eyes," a film in which Frankie also has a role. Caan asked for a table and didn't expect a problem because he'd become good friends with Pellegrino during recent shooting on the Long Island set.

No dice, said Frankie, explaining that the restaurant was booked. But he made a counteroffer: Pellegrino would be delighted to sit the actor right down for a meal, if he just came by any evening . . . around midnight. Con molto rispetto.

"Now, this is a huge honor," Caan says sarcastically, sounding more like Sonny Corleone than a jilted diner. "There's guys know Frankie 30 years don't get this. So what I gotta do to get into this joint? This is crazy, no?"

Cut to Rao's on Saturday night: Caan figures a dramatic appearance at the door can't hurt his chances, so he pulls up in a limo--only to learn the place is closed weekends. It's strictly business, Jimmy, nothing personal. A week later, impressed by Caan's dogged pursuit, Frankie gets him a table.

Yet big names are only a small part of what makes Rao's so special. Long after the last VIP leaves and Frankie begins sweeping up for the night, something lingers in the air and in the memory that almost defies explanation.

"Call it family, a sense of community," says Rob Reiner, describing his favorite restaurant, where he sings doo-wop with fellow diners. "At Rao's, the minute you walk in, you know it's not just a restaurant. It's an event, a scene, a feeling that you belong in a room with people who know and love you."

Most of the celebrities and patrons quoted in "Rao's Cookbook" rave about the ambience. They talk about the jukebox top heavy with oldies and the nights when a young tenor belts out Puccini; they talk about the cigars, suspenders and jokes that keep popping past midnight; they remember the night John Gotti dined late. But mostly, they talk about Frankie.

"This guy is the glue that holds it together," says Caan. "Without him, the place is a joint with great food. There are lots of joints with great food. But there's only one Rao's."

Frankie shakes his head. "I've just tried to be faithful to what my family created here years ago," he says. "That's what Rao's is all about."

Family-Run Establishment

Built an Early Reputation

*

In the 1880s, East Harlem was a neighborhood in flux. The Irish and German families who originally built tenements and shanties in the 30-square-block area were leaving, and a wave of new residents from southern Italy was arriving each week, bringing pushcarts and pastacierras.

Charles Rao, whose family came from Naples, was an ambitious man who bought a small saloon on the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue in 1896. His two sons, Vincent and Louis, took over and ran the place with flair, acquiring a reputation for good, low-priced food. Soon, the restaurant began attracting doctors, lawyers and a host of Runyonesque characters.

Rao's passed into Vincent's hands in 1958 when Louis died, and Vincent quickly put his own stamp on the joint. A lovable eccentric who shunned the limelight, he wore a big Stetson hat in the kitchen and rarely traveled out of the neighborhood.

When he married his sweetheart, Anna Pellegrino, she helped run the business. And they were quite a pair. Both of them cooked; Anna also seasoned the dining room with her caustic, earthy sense of humor. Cigarette holder in hand, she cut a bella figura in her pearls and upswept platinum hair, tinted glasses, turtlenecks, cashmere slacks and sandals.

Neither Vincent nor Anna was professionally trained. Cooking food was how they had always made a living, and their cuisine won praise for its simplicity and sturdy excellence. But as they clung to tradition, the neighborhood began changing.

Thousands of families fled for the suburbs, street crime increased, and the Neapolitan flavor faded. At one point, the local church had 50,000 Italian-American parishioners; today, there are fewer than 500.

By 1973, East Harlem was a different world. Yet Vincent and Anna had no intention of leaving. Indeed, Rao's was about to get a new employee: Frankie, the son of Anna's brother. A bright, ambitious kid born around the corner, he had his heart set on a singing career . . . but he fit right into the restaurant.

"I used to help my mother cook for everybody," he recalls. "Marinara sauce, meat sauce, eggplant parmigian', pasta fagiol', all that stuff. It came naturally to me.

"And my mother could never do enough for you. You came over and she'd say: 'What can I cook for you? Do you want a sandwich? I'll bake a cake.'

"It didn't end with her."

Frankie became a fixture at Rao's, first working behind the bar, then as maitre 'd. Yet he still dreamed of a life in showbiz; he'd sung rock and doo-wop with a neighborhood group in clubs, on cruise ships and in Catskills hotels, and he was convinced that his work in the restaurant was just a phase.

All that changed when a virus in his vocal cords ended his singing career. Dejected, Pellegrino threw himself into his restaurant work. And then, in 1977, all hell broke loose.

"We didn't know about the power of critics," he says. "So when Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times food critic, told my Uncle Vincent one night that she was going to review the restaurant, we didn't really think so much about it."

In fact, Vincent begged her not to write about Rao's at all, since he had enough business. Charmed, Sheraton wrote a column that most restaurateurs only dream about. She called Rao's "the sort of place every reviewer longs to come upon . . . in every sense, a find."

When celebrities began knocking at the door, Frankie built friendships with many of them. Woody Allen became a regular, and he based Mia Farrow's tough-talking character in "Broadway Danny Rose" almost entirely on Anna Pellegrino Rao.

When Allen's casting agent needed Italian faces for the same movie, she called Frankie to audition, and his film career was launched. He also got work and encouragement from TV producer Sonny Grosso, formerly the real-life partner of New York detective Popeye Doyle in the "French Connection" case.

Soon, Frankie was living a dual existence: looking for movie and TV jobs by day, running Rao's at night. He became a fine character actor, with such memorable portrayals as Johnny Dio, the mob prison chef in Scorsese's "GoodFellas."

"Frankie has really great talent," says actor Burt Young, a friend. "It was wonderful to see that a guy who runs such a fine restaurant can do so well in the movie business."

Pellegrino is equally blessed in his personal life. He and his wife, Josephine, have been married for 29 years and they have two children, Angela, 22, and Frankie Jr., 28. His son helps Frankie manage Rao's along with co-owner Ron Straci, a cousin.

The restaurant has also known sadness.

Vincent and Anna died within six weeks of each other in 1994, and many patrons still mourn them. One night two years later, after closing, an arsonist torched the place and the old wooden saloon had to be almost completely rebuilt. Rao's was shut down for six months; the crime has never been solved.

"We didn't deserve that," Frankie says softly. "But when I wondered if we should start over, I heard from so many people. They wanted to help, and I saw it was a privilege to be here every night, to offer friendship and get friendship in return."

70 Dinners Every Night

From Fine-Tuned Kitchen

*

At Rao's, the magic starts early.

Long before people arrive, the five-member kitchen staff is deep in preparation. Like an NBA team, they maneuver smoothly in tight spaces, turning out 70 meals every evening.

Mario Curko, the head chef, prepares the daily specials; Dino Gatto handles appetizers and salads. At the stove, Lydie Vicen watches six pots of pasta like they were chickens about to hatch. When armfuls of dirty plates start coming back to the kitchen, dishwasher Eddie Pacheco springs into action.

Dominick Loiacano cooks the meats and also runs a nearby butcher shop. "We don't run out of anything," he says. "Let's say you order a steak at midnight, but we don't have one. I run over to the shop and bring some back. No problem."

By 7 p.m., the orders pour in. Veal chops smothered in garlic are plopped in a sizzling pan. Juicy platters of chicken scarpariello are whisked into the dining room, while a pot of baccala simmers on the stove. Veal gnocchi is a big favorite, along with lemon chicken, shrimp diavolo, steak pizzaiola and that seafood salad--a meticulous arrangement of lobster, crab, calamari and shrimp in a light vinaigrette.

And there's Frankie, wrapping bear hugs around people and welcoming them to their tables. Orchestrating the flow of waiters across the crowded room, making sure diners are happy, and smiling like a proud papa watching children at play. Dancing with a shapely blond when she uncoils from her bar stool; crooning along at top volume with Jerry Vale on the jukebox ("Pretend you don't see her, my heart . . ."). And then ducking into the back room to field phone calls for tables ("No, I'm sorry. No").

Each diner is special to him. Each diner is different. Pellegrino has a memory bank of faces and knows that one customer is flying to Paris tomorrow, another is finishing a movie in New York and looks like she's ready to collapse. The meeting, greeting and hugging go on all night.

"Frankie works so hard to take care of people," says Tony Darrow, a nightclub singer-turned-actor whom Scorsese cast in "GoodFellas." "I really worry about him, you know? He's a workaholic, he's here every night."

Minutes after you're seated, Nicky "Vest" Zaloumis comes by to say hello. He's a full-service bartender, pouring drinks and bringing them to your table, forever asking if you want another. Then, Frankie Jr. sits down to tell you what's on the stove tonight. A typical meal for two runs $120, including wine. And you'd better bring cash. Rao's takes no credit cards or checks. Rao's has no menus. Just like home.

Well, maybe not just like home. Carol Nelson and her husband, Stan, have been Tuesday regulars for 15 years, and they remember the night Gotti came to dine. "It was like the world had stopped," she says.

The restaurant was hushed. But the pace picked up as the Mafia don and his beefy entourage sat down, ate a quiet meal and kept very much to themselves.

"One of the lures of Rao's is its speakeasy past, the suspicion that every other diner is the Godfather of something or other," writes Dick Schapp in "Rao's Cookbook." "Of course, the odds are that the six guys in dark suits just came from a golf match in New Jersey, not from a sitdown, but still the scent of the underworld adds to the glamour."

A Rao's diary is full of such moments: Sophia Loren in a white dress sweeping out of the room on a cloud. . . Robin Williams rattling a clamshell in each hand and singing,"I like to be in America, OK by me in America. . ."

Ultimately, says Frankie Jr., "this place is all about people letting go and simply being who they are. I don't know exactly what Rao's is, but it's not just a restaurant."

By 1:30, the little room where it's always Christmas has begun to empty. Frankie kisses the cooks goodnight and hugs his friends goodbye, gently laughing off their half-serious requests to come back the next evening--or even the next week. One by one, customers disappear into taxis or waiting limos and drive back into their lives.

"I once had a really marvelous woman dine with us," says Frankie, relaxing in a chair to tell one last story.

"She was married to Walter Shorenstein (a San Francisco real estate magnate), and the night she was here, she had a great time. I sang to her and we danced. She laughed a lot and said it was one of the very best evenings she'd ever had."

Eight years later, a friend told Frankie that Phyllis Shorenstein--a dignified art patron and the epitome of patrician reserve--had passed away. At the funeral, her son had mentioned Rao's as one of the happiest moments of her life.

"Isn't that something?," asks Frankie, eyes ablaze with delight. "To create such joy for someone who just walked in your door. Man, that's what it's all about."

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