There aren’t too many New York culinary institutions I haven’t been to. Since I moved to NYC in 2015, exploring and discovering New York City’s finest dining destinations has been a favorite past time of mine. I’ve established a policy where I try not to eat at the same place twice. The reason? There are just too many amazing options to consider and I’m trying to get to as many as I possibly can! But last night was a little bit of a different story.
You see, there are just some spots, either because they are too expensive or just too exclusive, that I haven’t been able to get my hands on. Rao’s is one of them.
This old school, classic Italian joint in East Harlem is by far one of the biggest bucket list check NYC items I’ve been after. I mean, when Vanity Fair names it “New York’s most exclusive restaurant“, you know I had to make it a personal mission to get in there.
Well, last night I did! Thanks to the powers that be (and a few close friends who I’ve bothered one too many times), we made it happen.
My friend told me we had a 7:00 reservation and unlike most of my reservations, I showed up early. I just couldn’t contain my excitement!
As the Uber pulled up to the corner of 114th street and Pleasant Avenue, I started to get butterflies. The red lacquered exterior stood out from the rest of the relatively plain neighborhood and the restaurant’s name, shone in big white letters lit by bright white lights.
Upon entering the place, I felt like I was walking on to the set of a movie. It wasn’t too big, maybe 12 tables total with a bar at the front and the kitchen off to the side. Pictures of celebrities, politicians, powerhouses and VIPs of the like hung on almost every inch of the walls. Christmas decorations were strung strategically (they’re there year round!) and there was a pleasant mix of conversation and music humming about.
We ordered a glass of wine at the bar and engaged in some friendly conversation. It was mostly well-dressed men in the restaurant, probably talking about business, as you can imagine. And if you can’t imagine, just know this, it has a reputation for being an OG (original gangster) type of joint. I’ll let you figure out the rest.
Soon, we were whisked away to our table and almost immediately greeted by Joe, one of the main waiters, who read our dining options to us (there is no menu). He started his schbeal by repeating what I’m sure he has for the last 40 years, “How we doing guys? I’m Joe. What we like to do, is serve everything family style”. He went on to rattle off more than a dozen options, so fast, it made my head spin.
Conflicted by so many amazing choices, we settled on some dishes – mozzarella and tomato salad, frutta di mare (seafood salad), meatballs, pesto pasta, penne vodka, lemon chicken and sliced steak.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Were you ordering for an army?”. Well, no, but we sure were hungry like one and weren’t going to miss out on the opportunity to eat everything we could. After all, I didn’t know when we’d have the chance to be back (this is one I’d make an exception for breaking my “no two restaurants the same” rule).
If you’re wondering why we wouldn’t have the chance to be back with just the click of an Open Table tab, it’s because reservations at this hot spot are more impossible to score than a winning lotto ticket. You see, the tables are owned. That’s right, they’re owned by famous people who fill them up with their friends, family and lucky list of whos who, and you and I are not one of them. According Sam Dangremond’s Town & Country article, owner Frank Pellegrino told him, “every table has been booked every night for the past 38 years”. The practice of assigning tables to regular customers actually came about after an amazing review in the New York Times in 1977 made it impossible to keep up with demand. Since then, the tables have gotten passed down from generation to generation. No one gives them up. Go figure!
But back to the food. Not too long after Joe jotted down our order, the dishes came pouring in. First it was the mozzarella caprese, then the frutta di mare, then meatballs. At this point, and after a couple glasses of wine and some delicious bread, I was getting full, so I slowed down and made room for the good stuff (or at least the other good stuff). The rest of the plates trickled in and I started to eat less, but I made every last effort to get as much in as possible, including the cheesecake topped with a candle and complimentary “digestive” because apparently my friends told them it was my birthday (a bit early, but what’s the harm in getting the celebration started in advance, right?).
If we didn’t lick our plates, it’s because its inappropriate for a group of adults to do so. Had it been socially acceptable, let’s just say the dishes wouldn’t need to go to the dishwasher.
Overall, it was a perfect “only in New York City” experience and I wish I could relive it all over again. I can’t recommend it enough! Everything was absolutely amazing – A real, home cooked Italian meal, with the intimate ambiance and top notch hospitality to match. We left with happy hearts and full bellies, and if that wasn’t enough, a couple of souvenirs to match – my very own Rao’s cap!
And now that I’ve shared my experience, I’m sure you’re wondering how you can have your own. Well, the answer is simple, start networking! I’m sure after enough time spent in this city, with enough requests for a favor to the “right person”, you might just get hooked up, “Wise Guy” style.
But, if you don’t have any luck with that, you can pop into the bar for a drink. Who knows, you might befriend someone who holds the reigns and they just might invite you to sit at one of those highly coveted seats. Sure it’s a gamble, but it’s definitely worth it, even if you just end up having a drink at the bar.
And if you’re not the type to try your luck, you can always recreate Rao’s at home – just head over to the pasta sauce grocery isle, pick up a jar of their famous red sauce, and start slaving away in the kitchen. While you’re at it, invite over your most Soprano acting friends and you’ve got yourself your own Rao’s…well almost!