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Restaurateur Frank Pellegrino, who found steady work on 'The Sopranos,' dies at 72

Restaurateur Frank Pellegrino, who found steady work on 'The Sopranos,' dies at 72
Frank Pellegrino outside Rao's, his East Harlem restaurant where it's nearly impossible to make a reservation. (Joe Pugliese / Los Angeles Times)

Frank Pellegrino, known as "Frankie No" to those who were rebuffed again and again as they tried to get a table at his homey but impossibly exclusive New York City restaurant, has died at age 72.

As the owner of Rao's, Pellegrino was part palace guard and part showman at the 10-table Italian restaurant. He sang to guests like Hillary Clinton and turned away would-be diners like Warren Buffett.

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He also had a second career as an actor.

He was cast by Martin Scorsese — an occasional diner at Rao's — as Johnny Dio in "Goodfellas" and landed an ongoing role as  New Jersey FBI bureau chief Frank Cubitoso in "The Sopranos."

Success also drew Pellegrino west, where the family opened roomier restaurants in Las Vegas and Hollywood.

Pellegrino died Tuesday in New York of lung cancer, his publicist Ken Langdon told the Associated Press.

Rao's was founded in 1896 and hasn't budged from its East Harlem neighborhood, though it did expand slightly after a suspicious fire in 1995. Ownership bounced down the family chain and eventually Pellegrino took over for his father and became a fixture at the restaurant — rubbing shoulders with regulars and celebs, sipping a drink at the bar, having a smoke out back.

Frank Pellegrino in center with Lorri Bagley and Vincent Pastore to his right and James Caan and Hugh Grant on his left in the romantic comedy "Mickey Blue Eyes."
Frank Pellegrino in center with Lorri Bagley and Vincent Pastore to his right and James Caan and Hugh Grant on his left in the romantic comedy "Mickey Blue Eyes." (Barry Wetcher / Castle Rock Entertainmen)

The impossibility of getting a reservation at Rao's became one of its trademarks, along with its fist-size meatballs, seafood salads and framed photos of Frankie Valli and Frank Sinatra.

Now-President Donald Trump ate here, and so did Jay Z, Billy Joel and Celine Dion. John Gotti ate here, but only once, Pellegrino said. And Leonardo DiCaprio ate here too when he filmed scenes for "The Wolf of Wall Street" in the snug Italian restaurant.

But for most, reservations are out of the question. Regulars all but "own" tables, and families are allowed to pass along their dining rights to family and friends. The restaurant reports it is booked — for example — through 2017.

Menus are available by request only, and bills are generally paid with cash or by check.

Pellegrino was born in New York on May 19, 1944. He is survived by his wife, a daughter and a son, who is a managing partner at the restaurants in Las Vegas and Hollywood.

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