Tough Tables

Penetrating Rao’s: 13 Customers Reveal How They Scored Tables

Frankie Pellegrino, outside Rao's.
Frankie Pellegrino, outside Rao’s. Photo: Corbis

Tomorrow, 117-year-old New York institution Rao’s will open its third-ever outpost, in Hollywood. Angelenos have been wondering if the new outpost will be as impossibly tough to crack as the New York original. If the Vegas location is any indication, it won’t be, yet the historic Spanish Harlem original remains as elusive and alluring as ever. It’s still nearly impossible to secure a seat without serious connections — but Grub tracked down thirteen people who revealed their strategies for getting in and dished on their best nights (though a few of them were so concerned about revealing their secrets that they didn’t want us to use their names).

Strategy 1: Don’t Take No for an Answer
“I had a business partner who was this fastidious attorney who would never take no for an answer. In 1995, someone who works for us wanted to go there for dinner. My business partner called [co-owner] Frank [Pellegrino] 500 times. Finally he said, ‘Oh my God, come in. I can’t take it anymore.’ My partner wore him down. That first time, we became friends with everyone there. Frankie Jr. bonded with me, for some reason, and we became good friends. I was very active in the restaurant business for a long time, and I think that helped as well.

I don’t have a standing table. I think in the seventeen years I’ve been going, I’ve only had legit reservations three or four times. Every other time, I just go on a Monday night, sit at the bar, and hope to get seated. I text one of the main guys to let them know and ask them to seat me. I brought my wife there on our first date fourteen years ago. She was definitely impressed.

I once had a great encounter with Johnny ‘Roastbeef’ [a character actor best known for his small role in Goodfellas]. We were at the bar, and, all of a sudden, the theme from Cats comes on. Johnny put his glass down hard, and he said, ‘Every time I hear this song, all I want to do is eat pussy.’ Without missing a beat, the woman next to him, who was in her sixties, asked, ‘Does anyone know where I can get the CD really quickly?’ I started laughing, and the bartender said that I couldn’t laugh. We didn’t know if it was a joke. I’ve seen amazing things there. A guy who had just gotten out of the slammer after twenty years showed up to celebrate, wearing clothes from twenty years ago: a skintight black sleeveless shirt and tight jeans.” —Anonymous

Strategy 2: Be Eddie Huang
“I went the first time with Zach Chodorow with his girl and some other girl. Zach has friends that have a standing table. In the winter, they go away, and I hit him up. It was cool. We had a good time. They definitely have the best meatballs in the city. You go for the environment. You walk in, you walk out, and there’s no better entrance to a restaurant. I take a Town Car, whatever. You walk into a movie.

The second time, it was my girl’s birthday, and it was right after Hurricane Sandy. She’s an Italian girl who lived in Harlem and had never gone, so I said, ‘I gotta take you.’ We went on November 4. I talked to Nicky the Vest at the bar, and he said he recognized me. I was like, ‘You don’t get many Chinese people in here?’ He said, ‘Why don’t I get you a table?’ Then Frank comes over and said, ‘Welcome back. If I have a table available, do you want to sit down and have dinner?’ Absolutely! We had dinner. It was the best birthday she ever had. You wish more people with that passion and that character were opening restaurants in New York.

But if you just want to just try the food, go to Vegas. That’s where my first Rao’s experience was, and I actually like Uncle Vincent’s chicken and the on-the-bone veal Parmesan better there. You can just walk into the Vegas location: It’s a twenty-minute wait, tops. You know how people say things just based on what sounds good? The fact of the matter is that the food is better in Vegas. But the Rao’s in Harlem is a New York institution. The moment you see it, you know why. It’s got that swag.” —Eddie Huang, Baohaus chef and soon-to-be television star

Strategy 3: Shower the Pellegrino Family With Gifts
“I used to work for an Academy Award–winning actor. It opened up a lot of doors in New York, but it never got me a table at Rao’s … until the actor’s executive assistant tracked down a member of the Pellegrino family and showered her with gifts: flowers, spa gift cards, and movie-premiere invitations. That’s how I scored my first reservation. I took my best friend, who’d also been trying (and failing) to get a table for many years. We feasted like kings. After dessert, the bartender asked us if we wanted a final drink ‘with Frank.’ Of course we said yes to this. The drink was served, but we didn’t touch it. We wanted to wait for Frank to join us, but an hour later, he still hadn’t come by our table. Eventually, the other tables emptied out. Rao’s was closing, and we realized that the drink was on Frank, not with him. Embarrassed, we quickly paid and departed.

More recently, I was able to get another reservation. A woman I knew was friends with Johnny ‘Roastbeef.’ Turns out knowing Mr. Roastbeef is a much better connection than any award-winning movie star because we landed the best table and had multiple drinks with Frank.” —Anonymous

Strategy 4: Be a Professional Baseball Player, Befriend Frankie
“I came to New York as a player in ‘72, and it was either ‘72 or ‘73 that I went to Rao’s for the first time. I don’t even remember who brought me, to be truthful. It was fun. Everyone realizes that it’s a special place more now than ever because it is so hard to get a table in the damn place. I’ve been friends with Frankie a long time. His original name was ’Frankie No’ because he ran the reservation book. No matter what you said, he said, ‘No!’ The old joke is that they only take reservations in November, and then they say they’re booked for the year. It’s the toughest reservation in all of New York City, even with those small Brooklyn restaurants with sixteen seats.

I get a chance to go maybe six or seven times a year. I live in West Palm Beach, and I come up and I work. I have two foundations that I started in New York City, and I sometimes get permission to auction a dinner here or there for charity, so sometimes people pay money to have dinner with me at Rao’s.” — Rusty Staub, former Major League Baseball player

Strategy 5: Better Yet, Be a Baseball Player’s Friend
“I started going about five or so years ago as a guest of good friend Rusty Staub, the former New York Mets baseball player, who had been going regularly (once a month or so) since the seventies. In the last year or so, I’ve been lucky enough to be offered a table, here or there, by Frankie or his cousin Susan Paolercio, who handles the much-coveted reservation book. I have a great relationship with them: They’ll call me and tell me when they have tables.

One of the best dishes isn’t even on the menu: fried chicken. You can win a lot of bets by saying it’s the best fried chicken in the city — it’s unbelievable.

The most memorable night … was my second or third time going, and I was with Rusty Staub, who played for the Expos in Montreal. We were minding our business, and across the way there was Celine Dion and her husband, with Tommy Mottola. Out of the blue, Celine got up, came over to the table, and started singing the Canadian national anthem. I went, ‘What the hell?’ She grew up watching Rusty play.” —Herb Karlitz, president of Karlitz & Company

Strategy 6: Go On a Monday
“The Rao’s people are dear friends of mine, but I don’t have a standing, once-a-month table. They usually gave me tables on Mondays. I’ve been there three or four times. When I eat there, I get the same table for two that’s close to the kitchen door. There was that murder a couple of years back, and that’s right by my table. The bullet hit the kitchen door, and for some time, the floor had stains on it. People go to racing-car events looking for accidents and hockey games looking for fights, but the dark side is that people want to see that when they go to Rao’s.

For me, what’s special about it is the closeness of everyone who works there. I see the same people, and I table-hop and say hello to people. Jeremy Shockey and Michael Strahan and I all sat down together there. Back then, they all worked for the Giants. That was a great time for me. The special nights are when Frankie gets up and sings. Cast members of Les Miz used to get up and sing, too, and that was always great. You have to finish the meal with the cheesecake. The woman who used to make it passed away, and it’s still very good, but not as good as it used to be.” —Sam Hazen, executive chef at Veritas

Veal chop with cherry peppers; Rao’s seafood salad; Uncle Vincent’s famous lemon chicken.Rao’s

Strategy 7: Get to Know the Family
“I started going a few years ago. Nicholas Caiazzio, a cousin of Frank Pellegrino, is a friend of mine. He has a couple of standing tables that I get offered. It’s always a show! One night we were up there, and it happened to be my birthday. Frank Pellegrino sang ‘Happy Birthday,’ and that was pretty cool. He’s the ultimate restauranteur. He lives up to everything that Rao’s is going to be. I grew up way downtown in Brooklyn, and it reminds me of that. Old guys outside smoking cigars. I like the fact that they haven’t ever changed over the years.” —Ralph Scamardella, corporate-executive chef/partner of the TAO Group

Strategy 8: Know Someone Who Knows Someone
“I ate at Rao’s in June of 1996 while I was a line cook at Bouley. I dined with chef Kurt Guttenbrunner (currently chef-owner of Wallsé), who was then a sous-chef. Through a regular Bouley customer, he was invited and brought me as a guest. I felt privileged for sure, and I remember eating some pretty tasty veal Parmesan. We had to get a car service at the door. It felt like I was in a movie.” —George Mendes, chef-owner of Aldea

Strategy 9: Find a Generous Regular
“I was a guest of [sportswriter] Dick Schaap, who had a table every Monday night. As he put it, it was his favorite possession. In fact, he wrote in his memoir about how pleased he was that I had taken his picture, and that I could have his Rao’s table anytime, which was very nice. He took me a number of times starting in 1988 — or sometime around there. I was lucky enough to be a guest of his many times.

In the early nineties, you could ask to get a table. Sometimes it’d take a month or so, but they’d usually give you a reservation. At the end of the evening with Dick, I’d ask if I could a table and take my sons. I began getting a table once every six or eight weeks. It was even possible to pull up in a taxi and walk in and ask, but there came a point where they literally filled the place with regulars.

The novelty of Rao’s wore off years ago, but I still go because the people make it so pleasant. I consider Frankie Jr. a good friend. The only reason my gallery at Caesar’s Palace existed is because he introduced me to the people at Caesar’s. He was basically my agent. Rao’s is a club you belong to — some people go to the Harvard Club or the Yale Club or whatever. I go to Rao’s.” —Neil Leifer, famed photographer and filmmaker

Strategy 10: Get Invited to a Private Party
“The only time I’ve ever been was for a press party that Bon Appétit organized after Adam Rapoport took over. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to secure the entire restaurant. Lots of food writers and bloggers were there, and the main point of the night was to promote the magazine, so it didn’t feel at all like a ‘real’ night at Rao’s. Still, Frankie was there, we got to be in that space, and they served a ton of food. What I mostly remember is that the Bon App eds were very gracious about letting people hitch rides home in their Condé-provided Town Cars at the end of the night, so maybe the place really does have some magical vibe that makes everyone more jovial. —Grub Street’s own Alan Sytsma

Strategy 11: Have Vague “Connections”
“I’ve got some ‘connections.’ Let’s leave it at that. The food is mediocre. Can we not name my name? I hate to insult them, but I cook better. I think you really have to know someone, either a celeb or someone of influence like a politician or a police chief.” —Anonymous

Strategy 12: Know a Mob Lawyer
“Someone I knew was about to get indicted because of a huge gambling scandal, and I wanted to introduce him to a well-known defense attorney. The attorney, who’s represented a bunch of organized criminals, was able to secure the table for us. It’s the only time I’ve been. The whole experience is a little surreal. You have a shitty sauce-and-cheese place, and people trying to act like they’re the shit. It’s not the best food ever, but it was definitely good. I did see Bobby Baccalieri from The Sopranos and detective Bo Dietl there that night, too.” —Anonymous

Strategy 13: Schmooze With Wall Street Types and/or Gangsters
“’I’ve dined there at least five times, and I ate once with the gangsters, once with the Wall Streeters, and once with Hollywood folks. I once sat with some movie producers and Ben Gazzara — what a Hollywood legend! My first book was all about the mob, and my second is all about Wall Street, so I was never the one who made the reservation when I started going years ago in the nineties. It was always someone else who had connections — knew the mob or whatever. You have to know someone. It’s more than a meal; it’s magic. —Suzanne Corso, writer

Penetrating Rao’s: 13 Customers Reveal How They Scored Tables