Eatery’s cook­book serves up spicy tales along with meat­balls

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - FOOD - By Jo­ce­lyn Noveck AP Na­tional Writer

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 Pel­le­grino 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 6th grade. “There’s a bond. It’s about preser­va­tion of re­la­tion­ships.”

If you re­ally want a ta­ble at Rao’s, prob­a­bly the best place to try is in Ve­gas, where the 10-year-old 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 p.m. 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.

On a tiny shelf — there’s not much wall space — sits a jar of the fa­mous Rao’s sauce sold in stores by the restau­rant’s spe­cialty food busi­ness. That busi­ness — and the han­dling of it — is cur­rently the sub­ject of a law­suit in state court that has, ac­cord­ing to tabloid re­ports, caused a bit­ter rift be­tween Pel­le­grino Sr. and his cousin and co-owner, Ron Straci, and his wife Sharon.

Pel­le­grino Jr. will only say that the law­suit is on­go­ing but he’s hope­ful it will be re­solved soon.

But it’s hard to say the law­suit is the most dra­matic calamity to be­fall the restau­rant — not with the mur­der and all.

It hap­pened, as the book re­counts (au­thors are the two Pel­le­gri­nos and Joseph Ric­cobene), around Christ­mas 2003, when a young ac­tress was ser­e­nad­ing din­ers with “Don’t Rain On My Pa­rade.”

A man at the bar “ut­tered un­kind words.” An older man, a mob­ster nick­named “Louie Lump Lump,” ad­mon­ished him, more in­sults were traded, and Louie ended up pulling a gun and killing the younger man. It didn’t hurt busi­ness. “I was here that evening,” says Pel­le­grino Jr. “It was a very un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent — we al­ways viewed Rao’s more like Switzer­land than any­thing else.” He adds that ru­mor has it there was an ear­lier shoot­ing “back in 1911 or 1912. A woman sit­ting here at the bar, a stray bul­let from out­side. I can’t con­firm it.”

But back to the food. 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.

RICHARD DREW — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Frank Pel­le­grino Jr., co-owner of Rao’s, serves meat­balls to ac­com­pany fusilli with cab­bage and sausage at the restau­rant last month.

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