By grace.g.yang ยท August 26, 2009
Under: Celebrity Sightings,Desserts,Dinner,Harlem,Italian,My Life,Things to do in NYC

Have you ever read anything about Rao’s? You’ve probably seen the pasta sauce next to the regular marinara at Whole Foods or some other grocery store and wondered why it cost $7.99 compared to the $1.99 Whole Foods organic stuff. Well, Rao’s is a restaurant in Harlem (and Las Vegas) and it’s one of the toughest restaurants to get into in the country; they don’t take reservations because everyone that goes to the restaurant has a “standing reservation.” Rao’s is owned by Frank Pellegrino and is known for their exclusivity and good Italian food. I didn’t know much about the restaurant, but Sara told me about it and I looked it up online to find out more information. There are dozens of message boards discussing Rao’s, with many commenters offering to buy someone’s meal if they have a table/reservation. I was intrigued, but didn’t really think I’d have a chance in hell to get into the restaurant. Luckily for me, Sara has connections all over New York and scored a reservation for herself and three of her friends. She invited me, David, and Laura, and we were all SUPER excited to go (I even watched Charlie Rose interview Frank Pellegrino before we dined at Rao’s so I could get even more excited).

We had a reservation for a Tuesday night and were excited for really good food; David, Sara, and I shared a cab from our office in the west village all the way to Harlem (on the way, I got really car sick and felt like I was going to die because of our cab driver’s inability to drive):


(the picture was taken before I had to stick my head out of the window to get some fresh air)

When we eventually got to the restaurant, we were greeted by Frank himself, who is at the restaurant almost everyday:


The restaurant isn’t in a great area; the three of us took a cab there so it wasn’t a big deal, but apparently we went through the projects and it’s really dangerous at night. Rao’s looked like a family restaurant and I was super excited to walk into these decorations:


Christmas decorations! Everywhere! My mom would’ve loved it (we have Christmas decorations at our house year-round. It is awesome and I will take pictures when I go home).

The atmosphere is quite friendly and it seems like everyone knows each other at the restaurant (which is quite possible considering there aren’t that many reservations available so if you go to the restaurant once a week or month, you might show up and dine next to the same people). In fact, when a person that has a reservation passes away, the reservation isn’t up for grabs – it is passed down to someone in the FAMILY!

We started off with some bread:


With some olive oil and parmesan cheese:


After a bit, the waiter brought some Rao’s white wine to the table:


While we were kind of munching on bread (we didn’t want to fill ourselves up with bread since we were about to eat a gigantic meal), an older guy pulled up a chair next to our booth with an ordering pad and started asking us some questions about what we wanted for food.

Since I watched the Charlie Rose special, I had a good idea about what I wanted to order; Sara and I discussed a couple of dishes that we really wanted to try (seafood salad, lemon chicken, steak) and the waiter added some other dishes to our order. We didn’t have a menu, so we were basically going off the waiter’s word that it wasn’t too much food for the four of us. We started off with fried mozzarella:


These weren’t the mozzarella sticks I used to eat at the golf course in high school; these were HUGE bricks of fried mozzarella with tomato sauce. The mozzarella was delicious, but I would’ve preferred to try the mozzarella fresh because it practically stuffed me and our meal had barely started.

Our next dish was seafood salad:


I was REALLY looking forward to the seafood salad; in Charlie Rose’s interview (which came out after the Rao’s cookbook was published), one of the authors says that his favorite dish is the seafood salad. The seafood salad is quite simple; lobster, shrimp, and squid with some lemon, olive oil, salt, and vinegar. Sara, Laura, and I LOVED the dish (it was actually my favorite dish of the night); it was light, the squid was chewy but very fresh, and there was so much lobster that I stuffed into my face. The sauce was so amazing that we ended up using it for a bread dip after the seafood was all gone.

After our two appetizers, we were served the pastas:


The waiters split up the pastas (we ordered bolognese with parpadelle pasta and tomato and cabbage with rigatoni). The bolognese was a little oily from the beef, but the parpadelle pasta was a really nice al dente. The tomato and cabbage sauce was very good (the acidity of the tomatoes cooked well with the blandness of the cabbage, but I didn’t like the pasta pairing).

We also ordered two meatballs:



I read that the meatballs might be a little tough and flavorless, so we decided to share the meatballs instead of ordering four for the table. The meatballs were surprisingly tender and we all enjoyed them.

Everything at Rao’s is served family-style, so our lemon chicken might look a little large, but we were splitting it:


Okay, I have no idea how we kept eating but when the lemon chicken arrived, we were all so excited to try it that we just dug right in. The chicken was moist, tender, and had a great lemon flavor. We didn’t end up eating all of the chicken (and Rao’s let us take it home) so I was lucky enough to enjoy some lemon chicken the next day.

Somehow, we were convinced at the beginning of our meal that we hadn’t ordered enough food, which is why we also ordered steak:


The steak had a nice marbling, a crisped exterior, and was surprisingly flavorful. We each ate one piece and then asked for them to wrap it up (luckily, everyone said I should take the leftovers home!)

The four of us:


At Rao’s, there’s only one seating per night, so you could technically get there at 6pm and stay until midnight (if you had all the time in the world). We were there pretty late, talking about Sara’s upcoming move to Chicago and playing games with the drinks they gave us after all of the food was gone:


Could you do this at per se?:


We finished the night with some ricotta cheesecake:


The night was amazingly fun and the food was very good; after dinner, someone came by to give us a menu (which would’ve been slightly helpful when we were ordering) with the prices. Everything is very reasonable; with a bottle of wine, two beers, and all of the food, we ended up spending about $90/pp.

Here we are outside of the restaurant around 11:


Rao’s isn’t pretentious, it’s not super fancy; it’s just a really nice Italian restaurant that has been around for over 100 years and has solid Italian food (although, as a nice side note, we did see Gina Lollobrigida and I had no idea who she was but when I mentioned it to my friend, Larry, he said we saw a huge star!) If I had the chance to go back, I’d definitely do it – I’d order a bucket of the seafood salad and eat by myself in a corner. A huge thank you to Sara and her family for getting a reservation AND for inviting me and David!

Rao's on Urbanspoon

Reader Comments

I have to agree with the seafood salad … I can’t get that dish out of my mind. It is the best dish that I have had in such a long time. I have the recipe, and I’m going to try it myself, but I don’t think that mine will turn out the same way. It’s the one dish that I would go back and eat over and over again.

Written By Greg on February 12th, 2011 @ 7:11 pm


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