If it is difficult to write convincingly about a stranger, it can be even more so trying to get it right when the subject is a dear friend—in this case, Frank Pellegrino Sr., who died of lung cancer on Tuesday at the age of 72.
My family and I valued him both professionally and personally and among my many reasons for being sad about his passing is the probability that this marks the end of an amazing era at the raffish, thoroughly authentic Rao’s.
Raffish and thoroughly authentic also describe the man who was largely responsible for the overwhelming and continued success of this red sauce Italian-American restaurant in East Harlem. After decades, it is still considered the toughest reservation in the U.S. with its 10 tables mostly time-shared by local tycoons and assorted VIPs. As the nightly dining room greeter and captain Frank refused so many reservation requests that he earned the nickname, “Frankie No.”
Last year when he and his beautiful wife Josephine came to a birthday party thrown for me, he began his remarks with a plea that none of the other guests ask him for a dinner reservation.
Of medium height and compact build, the impeccably dressed, dapper Frankie grew up in East Harlem where his food-loving parents settled after emigrating from the Campagna region of Italy. There he developed a quintessential New York combination of class and style with Runyonesque street smarts.
In fact, his own personality informed the roles he was given for his day job—that of an actor, who had prominent parts in TV dramas such as The Sopranos and intermittently on Law & Order, as well as in films such as Goodfellas, Mickey Blue Eyes and Broadway Danny Rose, a film by Woody Allen, who was, naturally, a Rao’s regular.
Many years ago, I was introduced to author Norman Mailer who immediately blurted out, “Ah! The woman who ruined Rao’s!”
And my ruination of Rao’s was where this idyll began. On Aug. 19, 1977, when I was the New York Times restaurant critic, my three-star review of Rao’s was published and, according to Frankie, things up there were never the same again. Phones rang off the hook in the then eight-table boîte that was closed on Saturdays and Sundays. “We didn’t know what hit us,” he said. “We didn’t read or know about restaurant reviews and the only paper we read was the New York Daily News. We figured if we closed for a three week vacation the whole thing would blow over. So far, it has not.”
A few weeks after my review appeared, I had a call from David Durk, a whistle-blowing member of the New York Police Department. He asked me if I knew Rao’s was a mob hangout and wondered if I had read his 1976 book, The Pleasant Avenue Connection. I said I had not and that the only thing concerning me was Rao’s functioning as a bona fide restaurant, although I was tickled at the frisson his information created. It sort of spiced things up, a few flakes of pepperoncino sprinkled over the pasta sauce.
Such a notorious clientele along with a comfortable coterie of followers that included writers, actors, politicians, and CEOs made Rao’s an already successful restaurant. Taken there for the first time by a friend who swore not to reveal my identity and by other regulars on two subsequent visits, I was blown away by the cozy but vaguely conspiratorial look of the place: The restaurant’s red facade was almost the only illuminated spot on the dreary corner of Pleasant Avenue and 114th Street. A couple of steps down from the sidewalk, then as now the dining room had a low pressed-tin ceiling and the walls were paneled with photos of celebrities and Christmas ornaments, which I later learned sparkled there year-round, immediately looked inviting and, well, authentic.
Frank with his warmly diffident smile held forth at our table and recited the menu (there was none printed) and took orders and made suggestions as diners liberally fed the juke box. Then came the food: a sprightly, sunny seafood salad, baked clams under a crisp mantel of breadcrumbs, garlic, and oregano, and even a perfectly fried sandwich of mozzarella in carrozza, a childhood favorite of my late husband, Richard Falcone. Next were simple but perfect pastas: linguine marinara or with white clam sauce, and orecchiette with broccoli and sausages. The main courses were equally impressive: the famed lemon chicken in a bronze glaze of citrus, and sausages or pork chops with vinegar cherry peppers, were winners on my various visits. Simple, maybe even trite dishes, but not so trite since they were expertly prepared from prime ingredients. Fortunately, Frank authored four cookbooks that include all of Rao’s most beloved specialties, plus a lot more in the same delectably soul-warming style.
That cooking was the province of the owner Vincent Rao whose father Charles had opened the place in 1896. Tall and straight, Vincent Rao always wore a Stetson hat as he was assisted by his wife, Anna Pellegrino Rao, Frank’s aunt, who wore dark sunglasses and was dressed in immaculate white from head to toe. With her death, just a few months after Vincent’s in 1994, Frank along with his cousin Ronald Straci became the owners of the establishment.
In addition to the original location, you can now find jars of Rao’s pasta sauce and condiments in your neighborhood supermarket, and there are outposts of the restaurant in Las Vegas and Hollywood run by Frank Pellegrino, Jr., Frankie’s son. But for me, the only Rao’s exists Brigadoon-like, on that enchanted corner of East Harlem.
Although the work of many deserve credit for Rao’s success, it was Frank Pellegrino’s tough dedication to perfection combined with his gracious appeal that kept the staff and the clientele loyal and, always, coming back for more.
The guy really was a doll.