Memo Pad: Rao’s Hosts Bon Appétit... Full Disclosure at NYT Magazine...

The famous East Harlem eatery, Rao’s, was closed to the public Tuesday evening for a Bon Appétit event celebrating Las Vegas Uncork’d.

Appeared In
Special Issue
Men'sWeek issue 03/03/2011

ONE NIGHT ONLY: On Tuesday night, Frank Pellegrino turned to the jukebox in his famous East Harlem Italian eatery, Rao’s, and dialed up a familiar song. As Dean Martin sang, “As the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore,” Pellegrino led the room in a sing-along, stopping at each table to give a nudge to the men and a kiss for the ladies.

A dinner at Rao’s, with its family-style servings of lemon chicken, baseball-size meatballs and red peppers in olive oil, is a distinctly New York kind of fantasy. Like a rent-controlled penthouse or a full scholarship to Dalton, it’s something you hear about but don’t really expect to experience.

There are a few reasons for this. Mimi Sheraton’s three-star review, which ran in The New York Times in 1977, put Rao’s on the map and “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said Frank Pellegrino 2nd. There is a single seating each evening at 10 tables and they are all booked for the remainder of 2011. According to general manager Joe Ciccone, the reservations for the following year are only accepted in person on a single day in November. Even so, Ciccone said he hasn’t been able to accommodate new reservations even then because his regular clientele of tycoons, celebrities and politicos, some of whom have been coming to Rao’s once a week for the past 20 or 30 years, rarely give up their tables. Ron Perelman, for example has the first booth reserved every single Monday of this year.

Fantasies do sometimes come true, however, and on Tuesday evening, the restaurant was closed to the public (a first for Rao’s) for a kick-off party hosted by Bon Appétit for the fifth anniversary of its Las Vegas Uncork’d event, which takes place May 5 to 8. Rao’s has done the event every year at Caesars Palace, where it has a second restaurant. Bon Appétit editor in chief Adam Rapoport schmoozed with editors and greeted chefs, who flew in expressly for the dinner, including Paul Bartolotta from the Wynn Hotel and Rick Moonen of Mandalay Bay, who mingled with François Payard, who has a patisserie in Caesars Palace. Jean-Georges Vongerichten stopped by for a drink but skipped supper, after receiving word that Donald Trump was headed to one of his restaurants.

No one worked the room like Pellegrino Sr., who circled it as if greeting old friends.“Bill Clinton was a lot of fun,” he recalled. “I was singing ‘My Girl’ and after I sang the line ‘mistakes I’ve made a few,’ he said, ‘me, too,’ and the place went wild. Unless you experience this place firsthand, you may never come to really know what Rao’s is.” But more people may soon be able to: Pellegrino Jr. revealed Rao’s plans to open a third restaurant but, this being Rao’s, he declined to say where.

— Amy Wicks

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