Anna & Vincent Rao
|A tidbit from Rao’s website plus a tidbit of my insight from the inside…
|“Rao’s is renowned for its jukebox, its quirky decor, its unmatched hospitality and most of all, the spectacular Neapolitan cuisine. It’s also notorious for being one of the most difficult restaurants in New York in which to get a reservation.
But what is it about this tiny, charming restaurant that makes it the most in-demand spot in the city night after night, year after year?
For decades Rao’s existed as a neighborhood restaurant. Its local customers would fill the tables with such regularity that eventually they were given standing reservations – bookings that persevere to this day”.
The mystique of Rao’s in East Harlem, New York City, will remain just that for those who are not fortunate enough to know someone who “owns” (they’re not really owned, but essentially owned) one of the ten tables that serve dinner only and Monday through Friday only.
My high school buddy Roy just happens to be in the meat business in NYC, and between him and Joey ‘Meat’ (whom we had never met. no pun intended), Sandy and I were extended an invitation for dinner at the famed and famous Rao’s on my birthday. The fact that it was my birthday was a coincidence and left room for a more celebratory state of mind.
Walking into Rao’s, especially for the first time, is like entering hallowed ground. My emotions were running high not knowing what to expect…yet anticipating something that went beyond culinary delight. It’s tough enough for me to go to an Italian restaurant since I can prepare the staple Italian dishes as good as lot of restaurants (if I don’t say so myself). I can’t even imagine how Mario Batali would feel.
As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t here for the food. Sound crazy? Not really, when you consider I bought the Rao’s cookbook about 13 years ago and knew what to expect since over that time I prepared many of their dishes at home. This included…as a little aside…the unique task of removing the core, as Rao’s does, from every canned tomato prior to cooking.
I was here because of the mystique…plain and simple.
Upon entry, we gravitated (literally) to the canopied bar where we could see the entire restaurant in view was decorated with a perpetual Christmas and holiday motif, which only added to the sense of celebration.
We met Nicky the bartender…ie.”Nicky Vest”…probably because of his one of a kind vests he always wears…and decided on a nice Tuscan bottle of 2007 Antinori Pepoli Chianti Classico as we waited for our hosts to arrive.
Not until Roy walked in did Sandy and I realize we were sitting and talking to Joey ‘Meat’ at the bar. A pleasant surprise.
My curiosity pulled me to the kitchen entryway and was again pleasantly greeted by two of the chefs (one chef and one chefess) and a couple of the waiters, who were quite accommodating as they posed for pictures.
Chef, Cheffess May & Bert
Smiling Chef, Chefess May, & Waiters
Joey, Roy, Sandy and Bert
As we were seated, the bruschetta hit the table and the maitre’d and captain all in one came over…pulled up a chair…sat down…and with a cordial smile started describing all the dishes off an unwritten menu. In just a few minutes, the order for their famous cold seafood salad, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella caprese’ and baked clams was served.
Cold Seafood Salad Topped With Fresh Lobster
Later came the linguine with white clam sauce and a touch of tomato (some may call it red clam sauce) with big beautiful clams, veal parmigiana, shrimp scampi, meatballs, sauteed escarole,and penne marinara (made with certified San Marzano Italian tomatoes and, oh yes, De Cecco pasta). Sooooo much…and sooooo good!
Each of these orders was shared by the four of us and each were fabulous by most folks definition of the word! My personal favorites were the cold seafood salad topped with lobster, the shrimp scampi and the linguine with clam sauce and clams.
White Clam Sauce with Tomato & Big Fat Juicy Clams
For dessert, we had raspberry sorbet…Roy’s favorite,the best Italian cheesecake you will
ever taste…and coffee.
By the way, if you are ever fortunate enough to get the call to come to Rao’s…don’t worry about parking. It’s free just across the street on the street. How’s that for accommodation?
Roy … thanks for celebrating with me and Sandy on my birthday…and thanks for the past and future memories! Joey…Along with Roy, thank you for a truly unforgettable experience.
We sincerely hope your new B Free hangers work as well for you as this evening worked for us.
Rao’s on the corner of East 114th Street & Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, New York