Rao’s restaurant in a New York winter
In New York, snow doesn’t lend a gentle glow or soften the sounds of the city. The opposite is true. After a week of subzero nights, snowfall is announced by the sound of a truck scraping a heavy blade over the frozen streets, spraying salt in its wake. This happens at 3am, and again at five. At six, the chorus begins: trains whine in the subway, ambulances wail in the streets and New Yorkers enter the fray, rife with purpose. Shopkeepers drag their shovels across their shopfronts and salt the pavement, hoping to avoid the inevitable slips and falls happening within a litigious distance of their door. As a visitor, the smart move is to get off the streets entirely. If the world seems to be undergoing epochal change, in New York at least one culture remains steadfast, resisting reinvention with an alluring shrug – that of the Italian American.
Throughout the past winter, Martin Scorsese’s short documentary film Italianamerican screened at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. In it, the director and his parents discuss their cultural experience of New York. They recount how many migrants never needed to learn Italian. They could speak solely their regional dialects and only rarely be at a social disadvantage. Elsewhere, in the Museum of the City of New York, an interactive exhibit details Italians’ temporal shift in the city, first gravitating to East Harlem and areas in Brooklyn, before establishing Little Italy in Manhattan. Today, as the older Italians give up their increasingly unaffordable real estate on the Lower East Side, and Chinatown steadily takes over Little Italy, restaurants serve as embassies.
I brave the snow and ice to the corner of Pleasant Avenue and East 114th Street in East Harlem, in the hope of visiting one of the city’s most renowned bastions of Italian hospitality – Rao’s.
As Nicholas Pileggi writes in his introduction to the bestseller Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking, “Rao’s has probably survived because its owners have refused to change.” Though open since 1896, it was a rave review in The New York Times in 1977 that brought the restaurant to wider attention and led to a deluge of bookings. Co-owner Anna Pellegrino and her nephew Frank responded by filling their four tables and six booths on a timeshare basis in perpetuity. “Every table has been booked every night for the past 38 years,” Frank told Town & Country in 2015. “No one gives them up. In every three-month period, I see all my clients, and now I’m dealing with their children and grandchildren.”
The only way to get a seat at Rao’s is to be a friend or a family member of someone lucky enough to have been put in Frank and Anna’s reservation book in 1977. Diners have a weekly or monthly reservation and if unused, they give it away or donate it to charity. Frank’s nickname is “Frankie No” for a very good reason.
There are no menus at Rao’s, just “what’s good”. Clintons, Kennedys and Sinatras have dined here, all as guests of regulars. Warren Buffett couldn’t get a table. Madonna tried. When Martin Scorsese visited he cast 21 regulars for his film Goodfellas, including Frank, who later scored a recurring role as an FBI agent in The Sopranos.
The night I take a train to East Harlem in a smart suit, a long black limousine occupies most of the pavement outside Rao’s. I step off the snowy street, adopt a confident posture, and stride down the steps knowing full well I’ll probably be striding back up them in a few minutes. I push open the red door and I’m immediately met by a man wearing a crisp suit with a cream-coloured loop scarf.
“Can I help you?” he asks, in a tone that suggests I’m lost.
“Am I able to have a drink at the bar?”
He looks at me for a few seconds, looks over at the bar, looks back at me, tilts his head towards it and wordlessly waves me in. Rao’s is busy. Booths line the walls, three on each side. Between them are positioned four circular tables, each laden with scraped plates and half-finished side dishes, in front of beaming faces resting on steepled elbows and hands nursing wine glasses. The scene is at once welcoming, exclusive, familiar and intimidating. The room is full of bubbling conversation punctuated by bursts of laughter and the chink of cutlery. It feels like it has always been this way, lively and convivial. Yet it’s also not too hard to imagine a gangster shooting a “made man” right by the jukebox, as happened in 2004.
Each conversation I catch seems to begin with the words, “Hey, my friend, my friend…” I sit on a bar stool and order a Manhattan. The bartender nods and begins pouring spirits directly into my glass. Looking around the room, my gaze returns several times to the familiar angular features of a man sitting at the nearest booth. Realising with a start that it’s Christopher Walken, I turn back to watch the barman make my drink.
“You don’t even need measures,” I say with a smile.
“Been doin’ this for years.”
“He doesn’t need measures,” says the guy next to me. “He’s a wizard.”
For the rest of the night the bartender is referred to as the Wizard. I soon learn the man sitting next to me is named Jimmy and he “kinda” has a table here. How, I ask, did he get one?
“I’m local,” he says, with an incredulity that suggests it should be obvious given he is neither famous nor very wealthy.
After a wintry week of little conversation, I welcome a chat. It’s not long before I learn that Jimmy is about to marry his fourth wife, a source of undisguised mockery from the Wizard. Despite being 42, Jimmy is about to retire from the construction job he’s had since he was a teenager, and as a union member he’s due a big payout. Waiters dip in and out of our conversation, their eyes never leaving their tables. They talk, but never make eye contact, and conversations end suddenly as they step away to help diners from their chairs.
“I’ve wanted to come to Rao’s for years,” I say, mispronouncing the name.
“Ray-Os,” the Wizard says without looking up.
“Oh, I’ve never heard someone say it out loud before,” I reply. He says nothing.
Nearby, three older men in subtly distinct navy blue suits discuss a recent visit to the Las Vegas branch of Rao’s. “It’s doin’ okay, it’s doin’ okay,” a man I recognise as Frank Pellegrino jnr says to another.
Kitchen hands and cooks emerge to make prolonged farewells and share wine with the last of the guests, their faces aglow. Despite the silent jukebox and people leaving, the place gets noisier. I take in the photos on the walls, lit by the year-round Christmas lights that line the bar – baseball players, film stars, politicians, signed black-and-white photos, saturated ’70s Polaroids of Anna and Frank, locals.
“It’s Christmas every day of the year here,” Jimmy mumbles.
After running through all the Australian clichés he can think of and slapping my back, he buys me a round of tequila and promises he’ll be able to get Frank to give me a table next week. “It’s no problem, it’s no problem,” he says. I decide against telling him I leave New York in the morning, thank him for his kindness and check my watch. It’s nearly midnight.
I climb the stairs, now icy in the dark, and begin a long trudge through the city’s freezing streets, feeling warm inside.
A few weeks later, after I’ve returned to Australia, I read that Frank Pellegrino has died, at 72. Rao’s closed for a week.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 10, 2017 as "Scorsese shade of winter". Subscribe here.