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Rao's: Have you eaten there lately??

  • m

is this place super special or just overrated. how hard is it to get a reservation??

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  1. This probably won't be of much help but based on my Mom's review from about 1976 it's good enough but more of an experience than a great meal. I do know that the sons have taken it over and have marketed the name quite a bit so there's bound to be a change reflected at the restaurant. I've never had a chance to go but I have a family friend who has a table every thursday for the past XXXX number of years. That's the kind of place it is I suppose.

    Sorry, no info on the food just a story. I've always wanted to go anyway. And their marinara sauce is my favorite, however you can find the EXACT same sauce in a Victorio's jar, same company that sellers peppers onion, olives etc, gold label. It's a few bucks cheaper and with rao's sauce being $10 a jar it's a good way to go. Regardless I have a jar of rao's in my fridge as I cant find Victorio's anymore.

    1. Rao's essentially operates as a private club, i.e., you need to be invited by someone who is a regular there. From what I gather, the food is nothing special. Frankly, it holds zero fascination for me.

      1. I never realized how infamous this restaurant was. About 10 years ago, while I was in the city, I drove up to Harlem and decided to pop in and make a reservation. At the time, I did not know who this man was (Frank Pellegrino~the owner) and I went into the place (it was an afternoon, so they were closed.) and spoke to Frank Pellegrino. He laughed when I said I wanted to make a reservation for the upcoming Sat. night.

        He told me maybe in 2 years or so. I just thought to myself..o.k. we are in Harlem and there is absolutely NOTHING special about the place (just a lot of the color red..everywhere.)..why won't he give me a reservation??? He told me he has had the same customers for X amount of years and they have been coming back to him so this is why he has no reservations.

        I left the restaurant and a few weeks later, I bought the Rao's cookbook, and it just made me laugh when I read the whole story. Honestly, I think the recipes are way too bland, and I could care less now that I never eat there.

        If you want to try some of his recipes, his son owns Baldoria on 49th. It is pretty good. They have live jazz usually on the weekend, upstairs. Here is the link:


        Hope this helps you out!!

        1. I think many people struggle to get in there to say they've been. I went once when a friend bought a dinner there at a charity auction. The food is good..nothing earth moving...but good. Most entertaining was Frank Pellegrino and a former Wall Street CEO singing "Under the Boardwalk" with the entire restaurant joining in.

          Then again, how many of these places actually live up to the hype if you get the chance to go? A thread that's been done I'm sure!

          5 Replies
          1. re: harrison

            One thing you can do is walk in and get a drink at the bar. They will serve you a stiff martini. Then, as the place is small, you can look at people eating the food you won't be eating, and realise there's no need to lose sleep over it.

            It's a very friendly place, in my experience, but no - you can't eat (and you can't eat at the bar either).

            1. re: Wilfrid

              I've done this years ago and it's definitely worth doing. There's a strong and pleasant "buzz"; people are excited to be there, it's the same excitement you'd find back in the day when you succeeded in getting in to the hot nightspot of the week, past the velvet rope. It's a well-dressed crowd too (Brooks Bros, not Brooklyn)

              1. re: Brian S

                I did it about 2 years ago. I thought the lemon chicken, meatballs and cheesecake were all great. I had a great time as everyone seemed to know each other, etc. and is very unlike any other restaurant I have been to in that way. It almost seemed like christmas (in a ny italian kind of way) was every day there.

                That all being said, I think the fact that the Las Vegas location exists substantially dilutes the brand itself. So, I don't have much of a desire of going back...

              2. re: Wilfrid

                So if I go in on a random Tuesday, I won't have a problem sitting at the bar? I've never been but understand it is quite small. I'd prefer not to go up there in a suit just to be told that there's no room at the bar.

                1. re: Taylor.Watson

                  give it a shot, nothing ventured nothing gained....the deal with Rao's, as with many consumer goods and services is a simple concept called branding...lots of people get bent out of shape on the concepts of branding

            2. buy the cookbook, make the meatballs (the water makes them the best); buy a bottle of his marinara sauce in the store and make some pasta; then make the lemon chicken; build a fire in the fireplace; cuddle with your sweetie.

              This is jfood home-grown answer to never seeing the inside of Rao's.

              And jfood thinks its waaaaay better.

              1 Reply
              1. re: jfood

                First, I want to say something here that no one else is saying. Rao's is not "Italian" as much as it is "Italian-American". This is ok with me--because this is what I prefer, since this is the type of food that I grew up on. I've travelled to Italy and the food is different, but very, very good.

                I've never been to Rao's, because I think it would ruin it for me. It has to be overrated--because I think the food would be ok, but it's more for the experience, as many have stated here. A month ago, I went to Baldoria for dessert--and I was not impressed. I'm rarely impressed with Italian restaurants, since this is what I specialize in making at home.

                I'm a big fan of the cookbook. It is literally falling apart, because I use it so much. As with anything that I cook, I make the recipes my own--so it's not that I follow the recipes by the letter, but more as a guideline. In my very picky Italian-American family, I am now famous for my Rao's versions of lemon chicken, shrimp scampi, tiramisu, sole, and many, many others. I use the jarred marinara sauce when I'm absolutely desperate for pasta--and too lazy to make my own.

              2. As others said, it's like a private dinner club, no reservations, you have to know somebody with a table. I was fortunate to know somebody who knew somebody, and got invited for dinner a couple years ago. It was quite a fun experience--we were treated wonderfully by Nicky the Vest (the bartender) and Frank Pellegrino, and it was quite campy to be among infamous D list celebrities like Victoria Gotti and Bo Dietl. For those who bash the food based on its looks, it was very good red sauce NY Italian food--great meatballs, roasted peppers, lemon chicken. True, you can find the recipes in the Rao's cookbook and reproduce the dishes (and probably even make them better at home), but I wouldn't compare that to the experience inside of Rao's. And I agree that now that one has opened in Vegas, it has lost it's luster for me.

                1. I dined there a little over a month ago. IF you are there to experience the food, you will probably be disappointed - especially with a CH palette. If you manage to be invited to dine there you probably already know it for all of its delight - a type of time warp and storytelling by Nicky "the vest" (bartender), Frankie, and rest of the staff that is archival and sensational. You will see fashions and shiny shoes out of a formal menswear catalog dressing patrons, and you will giggle and laugh with a kind of awe and sincerity as you do when hanging out with your best friend's great uncle. You will truly enjoy your time there, but it will not be because of the food. Now, the food: Simply put, you will not be appalled or get sick or be turned off by it. But you will think at one point - as I am certain all diners have done there, that after all the anticipation and the waiting and the schoomzing ... whats the big deal here? I define it as, things taste the way they should. Marina sauce tastes like a bunch of tomato married with some herbs and seasoning, meatballs taste like a a well rounded recipe and not memorable, sausages in a sauce tastes - well like good italian sausage, and again - nothing out of this world in comparison to the out of this world privilege it is for you to eat there. Things taste right, okay, with pastas while are not homemade are cooked al dente - and just fine. Table wares are not fancy, stainless steel knives and forks, very ordinary bread and breadbasket, plain water and wine glasses, no grand burgundy stemware -- Nothing really to knock, but nothing slightly above an average family style like italian restaurant in the city ... or in the suburbs. If anything you could probably buy their sauce and develop it further on the stove top with additional herbs and seasonings (which i have done a number of times) to create something exceptional.
                  When you goto Rao's its kinda like visiting friends, you catch up and have some laughs. You eat what they feed you, they like you and you like them, its all dandy. They will greet you at the door and walk you out. Last time while crossing the street to Raos I was slightly accosted by a homeless man for money, Frankie and co. standing outside shouted and rushed the man away from me. When you are their patron, you are their friend, and they kinda do own the corner in that 'hood.
                  Know that while there is this "rule" in place for you to get a table, the place is run by great guys that will never deny you entrance to just hang out at the bar and have a few laughs with Nicky.
                  Hope this was helpful.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: ilny

                    I agree with that posting, ilny. It is a great experience and the pastas are always good, but nothing you can't make at home yourself. It is all about the vibe and feeling part of something from a bygone era. Now if they can just do something about the canned peas that they serve.......

                    1. re: ilny

                      Great post. The questions about Rao's pop up about every 3 months on the board. From now on I'm going to link them to your post.

                      1. re: Bob Martinez

                        Your post is spot on. I've been eating there for 25 years, about 6 time a year. Getting in the 1st time is hard, after that you can get a regular table. Frankie Jr. is rinning Raos in Ls Vegas. He used to own Baldoria.

                    2. I've been to Rao's a few times now and I would concur with most of what has been written here--great experience, and food that would be considered "good" anywhere else but is held in higher regard because of the Rao's allure and the "rule." One dish I've had stands above however: veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and golden raisins. Has anyone else had this or tried to make it from the cookbook? I thought it was fantastic.

                      1. It's rare, but they do get cancellations, and tables do come up for later seatings.

                        It's just old New York status though...most people are pretty content with New New York status. In a lot of ways it's just the Uptown version of Sammy's Roumanian.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: sugartoof

                          I have been to both and they are not similar at all. The only basic similarity is they are homages to a specific time/culture. Sammys less so these days...

                          1. re: tpigeon

                            Yeah that may have been a bit high concept in comparison. I just mean they're rooms frozen in time, which people go for the experience rather then the quality of food. They're bot has New York as it gets...

                            But I meant that as a joke anyway.

                            1. re: sugartoof

                              Sammy's now has young women as waitresses where the waiters used to be obnoxious romanian guys. In that way, it has changed with the times.

                        2. When Ann and Vincent were alive, Frank was a waiter there.

                          I recall my first time there. It was a magical evening, like being a guest at the home of a great cook (in the classic Italian-American "red sauce" style; very comforting). In-between dinner and espresso, a guy at our table suggested we go outside for some fresh air. We tossed a football for awhile in the park across the street -- this in East Harlem in the late '70s!

                          Even today, Rao's is a special place. I know it'd be spoiled if they were larger and more approachable, but it's an experience that everyone who loves dining out should have once in a lifetime!

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: shaogo

                            I've only been once but I found it mediocre. Besides the atmosphere what's so special about Rao's?

                            1. re: KTinNYC

                              i've been twice. the food is on par with, say, ralph's on 9th avenue in the 50s. solid, unspectacular red sauce. the vibe is awesome and the people there treat you maginificently even if you're not a fake tough guy. recommended, but not at the expense of getting massive agita about getting in. it's possible to soak up the atmosphere while just having a drink.

                              1. re: david sprague

                                Ah, so I'm not the only one on this board that thinks the way I do. Thanks.

                                1. re: david sprague

                                  So I really just go there and grab a drink at the bar even though I'm
                                  A nobody. ??????


                                  1. re: kevin


                                    1. re: kevin

                                      I'm told that you can certainly get a drink there. You just won't get any food. That said, it's a way to sample the ambiance and tell people that you've been there.

                                      Lets be honest - Rao's isn't the best Italian restaurant in NY by a long shot. Part of its attraction is its unavailability. Most people can't get in.

                                      1. re: kevin

                                        A lot of nobodies eat at Rao's. Being known to the house, or an invited guest doesn't always mean being a known celebrity, or infamous New Yorker.