Next Best Thing to Being There

OK, OK, so you can't get into Rao's. Join the club and take heart: Virtual Rao's is on the way.

"If people can't get a table, I figured the least we could do was put out a cookbook that lays it all out, how we do things," says the restaurant's owner, Frankie Pellegrino.

So what are you waiting for? "Rao's Cookbook" (Random House, $40) is a handy guide to each of the restaurant's famed dishes, with practical cooking tips. It's also a treasure trove of anecdotes about the uptown saloon that became a landmark.

You get to relive priceless moments--like Billy Crystal's story of the night he sat in a booth near Claus von Bulow.

Von Bulow was "going over the galleys of his book with his editor," Crystal writes. "He had also consumed a vat of Chianti before his appetizers. His editor said, 'Claus, that should be a comma . . .' Claus laughed and said: 'You mean coma, don't you?' "

Once you have the book, you might also pick up a bottle of Rao's marinara sauce, now being sold nationwide. Many longtime customers swear they can't tell the difference when they use it at home.

And if you still feel you're missing something, relax. It's only a CD away. Sony-Legacy has just released "A Night at Rao's," a rousing collection of songs that Frankie sings each night and other hits from Rao's jukebox. It's just the thing to play while you're struggling in the kitchen with Anna and Frankie's Meatballs or Uncle Vincent's Christmas Eve Baccala.

You get everything from "My Girl" by the Temptations to Louis Prima's "Just a Gigolo" and Tony Bennett's "Rags to Riches." As a bonus, Frankie sings "The Ham," a dramatic song-narrative by Charles Aznavour that concludes the CD.

"So here's what you do," Pellegrino says. "You pick out your favorite dishes from the book. You add in the sauce and you put on the music. Boom!"

It might be as close to Rao's as you ever get.

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