Charles Rao opened Rao’s in 1896 — the historic Harlem restaurant that’s arguably the most exclusive place in New York — but it was Frank Pellegrino Sr. who transformed it into what it is today. He created a booming brand, founding Rao’s Specialty Foods (which produces the wildly popular marina sauce) and authoring two cookbooks. He also helped his son, Frank Pellegrino Jr., expand Rao’s to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Yesterday, at the age of 72, he died after a battle with cancer.
According to a recent Vanity Fair profile, Pellegrino continued to serve as Rao’s nightly host even through his health struggles this past year. (“The undisputed ringmaster of Rao’s, who glad-hands like a pro and makes it all look easy, he is also the guy who came up the hard way, working every day since he was 16, in the kitchen, behind the bar.”) In addition to running the restaurant, he acted in Goodfellas and The Sopranos. And while the tough, mobsterlike associations rang true, Pellegrino was also famous for breaking out into song in the middle of the restaurant. A former NYPD detective told the Post, “He was one of the bravest guys I ever met.”