Rao’s: New York’s Legendary Family-Run Italian Restaurant

There’s something about New York. It has been a lively melting pot of cultures over several generations thanks to the migrants who inhabit its boroughs. Those two factors – drawing the most driven migrants and blending of cultures – have created a thriving food culture that is an essential part of the city. Perhaps the best representation of this is Rao’s, one of NYC’s most iconic restaurants. It was founded over a century ago, in 1896, in East Harlem, and is now celebrated as a dining destination that is exclusive, proudly traditional, and a piece of history. Getting a table at Rao’s NYC is not an easy thing (more like impossible!) for the average foodie. 

Rao’s is a family-owned Italian restaurant that prides itself on traditional culinary expertise and the personal-touch dining experience it provides its guests. It is also a bit of a landmark in the high-flying New York experience – it's a regular haunt for films stars, and has been featured in films, music videos and TV shows.  

If you’re wondering about an Indian connect (given the name ‘Rao’), perish the thought. Rao’s is a traditional Neapolitan family-run, home-style Italian restaurant. Originally owned by one Vincent Rao and his wife Anna Pellegrino, it passed on to their nephews Frank Pellegrino and Ron Straci in 1991, and is now in its 126th year of existence. When American food critic and writer Mimi Sheraton awarded three stars in 1979 to Rao’s in The New York Times, she catapulted the restaurant to the glamorous, exalted status that it enjoys today, and with good reason. Its fame grew far and wide, and the restaurant opened two other outlets in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Rao’s has no menu, unless requested for. The food is homey, delicious, flavourful and to-die-for. Dinners are elaborate marathon events with hot and cold antipasti, salad, a few pastas, their signature huge soft meatballs, and main courses. Then there is dessert, cappuccinos, and cordials, and, not to mention, entertainment in the form of storytelling, singing, and jukebox music playing in the background, all while being attended to by the famously hospitable staff ever ready to serve. Traditions and customs, the façade of the restaurant, and the dining experience remain unchanged to this day. That allows millennials a chance to travel back in time and soak in an older, refined, delicious style of cuisine and the dining experience that accompanied it.

The best restaurants are not just about the food, but also the brand. Word of mouth made Rao’s a legendary brand in certain circles, so much so that those unable to make it into the restaurant demanded, and received, Rao’s packaged Italian sauces since 1992. It’s the authentic taste that Rao’s has chosen to prioritise which has led to the air of exclusivity around it. 

Each jar carries with it the real Neapolitan flavours and cooking traditions as if right out of the iconic kitchen. The famous sauces are created with healthy, nutritious ingredients with no shortcuts to reach culinary perfection. With no starch, filler, artificial colour, or added sugar, these are now available in stores for people to cook and enjoy in their homes. 

Books co-authored by the father-son duo of Frank Pellegrino Sr and Jr, are a hit with those that want to sample and prepare dishes from a restaurant that has become a major culinary landmark. 

As a foodie, or even a connoisseur, an average visitor to Rao’s is likely to feel humbled yet excited when seated at the same tables that were the regular haunts of icons, actors, rock stars, politicians, sports figures, business icons, the self-made heroes, captains of industry and finance etc. Entry into Rao’s works on connections, who you are or on a who-you-know basis. This restaurant designed a 'table right' reservation or ‘slot’ system for its patrons, that is still relevant to this day. So if you plan on a fine-dine evening, make sure that Rao’s has been duly intimated about your visit or you will, most probably, be denied passage. Frank Pellegrino Sr., infamously nicknamed ‘Frankie No’ for his ability to firmly refuse entry into Rao’s, has been known to deny entry even to the rich and famous, if they showed up without the necessary invitation or reservation, while welcoming his guests for the night. These tables are booked by its regulars on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, and their reservation book for the year is almost always ‘closed.’