Rao’s cook­book serves up spicy anec­dotes with the meat­balls

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in New York

So one night, the story goes, Justin Bieber was in town, and had a han­ker­ing for Ital­ian food. Not just any Ital­ian, but Rao’s, the tiny restau­rant by a park in East Har­lem that’s been around for 120 years — and is one of the hard­est-to-get ta­bles in the coun­try, let alone the city.

Some “se­ri­ous so­ci­ety types” made inquiries for Bieber, ac­cord­ing to an anec­dote in the new cook­book, Rao’s Clas­sics. But the place was booked with reg­u­lars, as al­ways. Would heaven and earth be moved? The an­swer came crisply and suc­cinctly: “No one gives a (blank) about Justin Bieber.”

Many things are said to be im­pos­si­ble in Man­hat­tan. A taxi at rush hour in the rain. A park­ing spot on a Satur­day night. Hamil­ton tick­ets in the cur­rent cen­tury.

But let’s be pre­cise. Those things are dif­fi­cult, but not im­pos­si­ble.

You know what’s im­pos­si­ble? Get­ting a reser­va­tion at Rao’s.

The first thing to know is that Rao’s has only 10 ta­bles, serv­ing 60-ish din­ers a night — one leisurely seat­ing only (and no lunch.) The next is that these ta­bles have been as­signed for years. Peo­ple have their reg­u­lar nights. A table can be handed down in a fam­ily, or gifted to a friend for a night, or auc­tioned for char­ity at many (many!) thou­sands of dol­lars for an evening.

As the Za­gat guide says, it “prac­ti­cally takes an act of Congress” to score a table.

And so, vis­it­ing Rao’s one day re­cently, some five hours be­fore doors open, one of our first ques­tions is whether there’s ever been a thought to shak­ing up the sys­tem — maybe get­ting a bunch of fresh blood into the doors.

That, says co-owner Frank Pelle- grino Jr, is re­ally miss­ing the point.

“I’ve known many of these guests since I was a kid,” says Pel­le­grino, 46, whose first job at Rao’s was a sum­mer gig in 6 th grade. “There’s a bond. It’s about preser- va­tion of re­la­tion­ships.”

If you re­ally want a table at Rao’s, prob­a­bly the best place to try is in Ve­gas, where the 10-yearold Rao’s at Cae­sar’s Palace oc­cu­pies 10,000 square feet — “about five New York Rao’s in one”, quips Pel­le­grino — serv­ing 400-600 peo­ple a night (and 800 large meat­balls a day.) There’s also been an out­post in Hol­ly­wood since 2013.

Pel­le­grino Jr spends most of his time out west, while his fa­ther, Frank Sr, pre­sides over the Man­hat­tan lo­cale, which opened in 1896. Com­ing back to New York feels like a re­union, he says. Still, “I only get to eat here when I’m work­ing or when I cook my­self ” — which is what he’s do­ing at 1 pm when we ar­rive.

The place is quiet, very quiet. Lights are still off in the din­ing room. But in the kitchen, a huge pot of mari­nara sauce is be­ing tended by Paulie Sanchez, who’s been with the restau­rant some 15 years. Pel­le­grino, mean­while, is whip­ping up some fusilli with cab­bage and sausage. The recipe ap­pears in the new book, with about 140 other fa­vorites.

Pel­le­grino’s fa­vorite dishes in­clude the pork chop with cherry pep­pers — a 450-year-old recipe — and the shells with ri­cotta. The seafood salad is very pop­u­lar. But prob­a­bly the one thing Rao’s is best known for is its meat­ball — about three times the size of a nor­mal one. Ini­tially, meat­balls were served only on Wed­nes­days. But de­mand was too great to limit the dish.

Rao’s walls are plas­tered with pho­tos of the celebri­ties that have passed through — usu­ally as guests of reg­u­lars. Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pic­ture is there, from her Se­nate years; Don­ald Trump has also vis­ited. Hol­ly­wood stars ga­lore. And many cast mem­bers of The So­pra­nos.

One reg­u­lar was sports­writer Dick Schaap, who died in 2001. At his fu­neral, Billy Crys­tal noted in his eu­logy that ev­ery­one was think­ing the same thought.

“Who’s go­ing to get his table at Rao’s?”

AP

Frank Pel­le­grino Jr, co-owner of Rao’s, serves the restau­rant’s sig­na­ture meat­balls at the 120-year-old eatery by a park in East Har­lem, New York.

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