Lutece, Shmutece! the Toughest Dinner Reservation in New York Is a Tiny Italian Outpost in Harlem

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

There is a restaurant you cannot get into in New York that is different from all the other restaurants you cannot get into in New York. It is located in East Harlem, which alone would make it a curiosity, but what makes Rao's so unusual is that it is so unlike the rest of New York. Checks are accepted and never bounce, cars are left beside the curb and never vandalized, patrons are welcomed and never forgotten. Though East Harlem is a neighborhood many Manhattan residents spend their lives avoiding, once they visit the tiny, red restaurant at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to return. "Rao's is a remnant," says Frankie Pellegrino, 43, who politely turns down nearly all requests for reservations. "It's what East Harlem used to be, and we are remnants of what the people of East Harlem used to be."

East Harlem, now dominated by high-rise housing projects, was never Park Avenue. It was pushcarts and six-story tenements, a chaotic, mostly Italian, ethnic harmony. Vincent Rao, 80, the owner, still lives in the house where he was born, one door down from the restaurant. More than 90 years ago, when Rao's was a workingman's bar, Vincent's father and uncle bought the place from a brewery, and Vincent grew up doing his daily chores there. He swept up, chopped wood for the kitchen stoves, shined the brass spittoons. After the deaths of his father and uncle, Vincent and his brother (now deceased) took over. They kept Rao's open even through Prohibition, when they made wine in the kitchen and sold it for $1 a bottle.

In 1962, to pass over a few years, Vincent married a woman from the neighborhood after an 18-year engagement—"the longest in history," says Anne Rao, 62. Anne promptly started cooking alongside her husband, and in the mid '70s their nephew Frankie gave up his singing career—he was Frank Anthony on the cruise ships—to take charge of the four-booth, four-table dining room. Rao's was complete. "I'll tell you what Rao's is," says Anne. "Rao's is me, Vincent and Frankie." It is also certainly the most difficult reservation in New York.

Scene, a magazine published by the same people who put out trendy Women's Wear Daily, named Rao's one of the world's top "fun" restaurants. The Zagat restaurant survey listed it among the top New York "power scenes." After Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich dined at Rao's, he officially proclaimed Dec. 15, 1987 as "Vincent Rao Day" in Minnesota. The Mayor of Providence, R.I., gave Vincent a key to the city. Donald Sutherland sent an autographed picture with wistful reminiscences of his most recent Rao's repast. Leroy Neiman sent a sketch of Vincent. So the food, by all indications, is good.

"What's the fuss?" asks Anne. "It's just clean home cooking." The style is Southern Italian, the Neapolitan food that all the people in the neighborhood ate before they moved to the suburbs where the schools were better and the sauces worse. But it's not just the cooking that has made Rao's one of the most desired and unobtainable joys of Manhattan. It's everything.

It's the decor, best described as basic. In a city where a lot of money is spent to make places look the way they did at the turn of the century, no money has been spent to make Rao's look the way it did at the turn of the century. The tablecloths are white, the chairs red vinyl, the cutlery is stainless steel and the ceiling a shiny brown—the unpainted tin having been darkened by decades of cooking and cigarette smoke. Occasionally the photos on the wall are changed but not often; the only Pope pictured is Pius XII.

In addition to Anne, Vincent and Frankie, Rao's is Nick Zaloumis, 55, the bartender for more than a decade, coming over to your table to suggest a wine. He always suggests the wine in the funny green bottle. Rao's is Jocko, Vincent's huge black dog, sweeter even than Vincent, wandering in and out in search of scraps of cheesecake. And Rao's is also the Raoettes, a group of Frankie's friends from the Bronx. First they eat, then they sing, accompanying Frankie and the jukebox. Frankie is good, especially when singing along with the Earls on I Believe. As for the Raoettes, when they sing, the neighborhood only gets worse.

Rao's is practically perfect, except for one thing: You cannot get in. Hollywood producer Sonny Grosso, once a New York police detective, got so tired of never getting a table from Frankie that he nicknamed him Frankie No. Says Frankie, "I had some guy offer me $1,000 a month if I'd give him a table one night a week, He said he'd send the $1,000 every month whether or not he came. I told him, 'No.' "

Another Hollywood producer, slyly noting that Vincent likes to wear a hat when he cooks, sent a dusty, broad-brimmed Western model once worn in a film by Clint Eastwood. The next time the producer telephoned for a reservation, he was turned down. Sal Marchiano, a sports reporter for a local TV station, has his picture up on the wall. Does this help get him a reservation? "It doesn't," laments Marchiano. When Vincent was in a hospital for a knee replacement, the orthopedic surgeon asked if he was any relation to the Rao family who owned the restaurant. Vincent said he was not. "I was in a cab one day," says Anne. "I told the driver to take me to 114th Street, and he said, 'Lady, are you trying to get into that restaurant on the corner?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Don't bother, lady. They're so crowded they won't let you in.' I said, 'I don't eat out much....' "

Nearly all the people who do get into Rao's are friends of the family, and the way to become a friend of the family is to eat there three or four times. Since 80 percent of the business comes from regulars, and since Rao's serves only about 35 meals a night, five nights a week, getting one of the few tables not spoken for is only slightly easier than getting a rent-controlled apartment. Frankie takes reservations once every two months; his book opens on April 1 for seatings in May and June. He expects several hundred calls but wouldn't mind getting none. "I've got to be the only person in the restaurant business who tells people not to come," he says.

Rao's regulars range from Felix Rohatyn, of the investment banking firm of Lazard Frères & Co., to Angelo the Jet, a slim man with a hoarse voice and no further ID. Susan Kasen, a Manhattan florist, has one of the big tables (six seats) every Monday night. "I have a list of 25 or 30 people who want my table when I go out of town," she says. "I have another 150 who want to be on the list." Michael Korda, editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster, has a booth (four seats) each Monday. He says he never misses a meal at Rao's "unless I'm out of town or dead."

Anne's favorite visitor was Robert Redford, who gave her a kiss. Vincent's favorite was actress Irene Papas, who made a fuss over him. Frankie went for Dolly Parton because she gave him a hug. "She had him up against the bread bin hugging him," says Anne, looking skeptically at her married nephew. Mia Farrow, who comes in often with Woody Allen, was so taken by Anne's appearance that she made her character in Broadway Danny Rose an Anne Rao look-alike. Anne, who is a perfect '50s period piece in her white slacks, turtleneck sweater, gold sandals and monogrammed glasses, would like it pointed out that Danny Rose's gum-chewing, fast-talking, money-grubbing friend only looked like her. A nice woman from the neighborhood would never behave that way.

Vincent, Anne and Frankie all love the neighborhood, even if there isn't much of it left. They love what it was, and they are loyal to what remains. Anne shops there, buying her produce on 115th Street, her chicken and meat on 112th Street. When Vincent was approached by the wife of a studio head to open a branch of Rao's in Los Angeles, he declined, simply because Rao's could be only where it is, and it could be only the real thing if he and Anne and Frankie were there.

"The sad thing," says Frankie, "is that it can't last forever."

The miracle is that it has lasted this long.

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