Part I The Italian Job
My original intention was to write this blog exclusively about obtaining a table at the most exclusive and difficult reservation in the entire city. Maybe in the entire world. A place where you are less likely to get a table than to be struck by lightening.
But we’ll get back to that…..instead I have to write about something else too that fits along the lines of the subject matter of my original blog.
Today I worked one of my side-gigs. Nothing extraordinary or unusual for a Saturday afternoon. I think most of you know that I have a side-gig doing marketing and promotions. Sometimes it’s a gig for Hebrew National Hot Dogs sometimes it’s for Remy-Martin VSOP and sometimes it’s for Vaseline Lotion. The gigs I do run the gamete. Today it was mozzarella. A brand called Galbani that has been around for 125 years in Italy, but is just now being launched in the US market. So I showed up this morning at 50th street and 6th avenue (which was renamed “Avenue of the Americas”, but none of us call it anything but 6th in this city) where there was an International Culture Festival going on today. I checked in with the event staff. As I looked at the list I realized everyone on there had an Italian last name. The marketing company made an effort to hire brand ambassadors of Italian origin. Which makes sense. Italian company. Italian cheese. Who else is better for the job?
I do wonder, however, if the people from Galbani realized the difference between NYC/NJ Italians and Italians who live in Italy. I think I may have been working with every single person who auditioned for Jersey Shore, but was not cast.
Important disclaimer: I am not knockin’ Italian-Americans, I am just observing some things here. I love Italians, heck, I AM one myself (at least partially)! What’s not to love about Italians? Italians are beautiful people with striking features, curvy beautiful bodies, dramatic eyes, and they exude this sensuality (think Sophia Loren). They are smart, they are good lovers, they appreciate good food.
At any rate, many of the folks working this promotion with me were 20-something Guidos, Dagos, Guapos, whatever you wanna call them. Here’s an example of a conversation with one. Just to give you a visual, he had a haircut called “The Brooklyn Fade”, which looks not dissimilar from the texture and shape of an artichoke.
He wore form-fitting black pants with buttery leather Italian loafers. (This gig involved 7 hours of standing in 90 degree weather, outdoors.) So we’ll call him Gino. I forgot what his name actually was, but I think Gino sounds about right. Gino wore a lot of cologne. Armani maybe? A LOT of Armani. Gino pointed to the mirror set up on the stage to showcase the chefs who were making traditional caprese dishes. In his thick Staten Island accent, he asks “You see that mirrah up theh?”
“Yeah?” I asked, wondering where this was going….
“That mirrah”, Gino declares, pointing his finger, “would be reeaaaal nice above my bed.” And then he nodded matter-of-factly.
I laughed. This pretty much sums up my entire day. I think if the marketing company told me I had to work this gig for free I still would have done it, knowing how entertained I was the entire day by antics such as this.
Part II The most coveted table in the entire city (and maybe the entire world)
So my colleague John and I have been drooling over and talking about Rao’s for years. Rao’s is a very old Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. It was founded in 1896 when 114th Street and Pleasant Ave. used to be known as Italian Harlem. Finally John and I went ahead and set a date to just go there. If you call the restaurant, the message is something along the lines of this (try to read this with a Bronx accent):
"Thank you for calling Rao's. All the tables for 2007 are reserved. Thanks, have a good day."
(Yes, I realize I said 2007- it might still say that until about 2027.) No option to leave a message or even think about a table whatsoever. It is illegal to think about getting a reservation there.
There is one seating: 7:30 PM. That’s it. They are only opened Monday through Friday. They don’t need to be opened on the weekends. They only take cash. Or personal check. (Hmmm….) No credit cards.
If you talk to anyone who knows anything about food in the city, they will explain to you that there is an elite haute class who “own” each of the ten tables. You have to either know someone or be really wealthy or really famous or all three of those things to get a table at Rao’s.
It is just that exclusive. The likes of Madonna and Donald Trump and Rudy Guilliani and CEO's of companies like Ferrari and a few others are the types who dine there.
But, the one loophole is this: you can sit at the bar. You cannot eat at the bar. But you can drink at the bar. And observe.
Precisely our goal.
John and I met up around the corner from Rao’s. We were dressed to the nines. You have to be. We are both are Italian. We would be okay. We had faith. We walked through the park, which is situated across the street from Rao’s and stood outside the red façade. We were nervous. There were important people in fancy suits having important conversations. The restaurant is small.
Should we chicken out we asked each other?
Not a chance. We are walking in. And we are walking in like we BELONG there. We are confident. We are sitting down at that bar. We are ordering a drink. We are observing. We are important. We are Italian. We are supposed to be here.
We walked in and John asked one of the servers if we could perhaps sit at the bar and have a martini. The bar was mostly empty. The surver looked over at Frank Pellegrino, the owner, questioningly. Frank looked both of us up and down carefully. For a moment he looked perplexed. Finally, “Okay”, he nodded.
How did I know it was Frank Pellegrino? Because he is a legend in the city. He sometimes breaks into spontaneous song at the restaurant. He has been on Law & Order, and also the Sopranos (quel supris) and I believe several others.
John and I made it just at the right time. We were dressed to Frank’s satisfaction. 8:15 to be exact. At 8:30 the bar was packed and there was not a seat to be had.
So we gawked. We laughed. We admired the people. There was one guy who looked like he belonged on the cast of the Godfather trilogy. Every time I looked his way, he managed to lock eyes with me. John too. It was not a happy locking of eyes. I thought it might not be a surprise if we ended up dead before the night was over.
The men of the restaurant just as well could have been at a casting call for “Goodfellows”. The men wore suits of the finest threads. And those buttery soft Italian leather loafers that I mentioned earlier on Gino’s feet at the Galbani gig. The women wore leopard print. Four inch stilletos and gold. Lots of gold.
See the guy centered in this photo below? He's handsome. I think he may have caught me snapping this shot. If you do know him, please guide him to my blog (or maybe not.)
There was a jukebox in the corner playing Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. There were Christmas wreaths with white lights. (This is June.) The bartender introduced himself as Nickie. He is known as Nickie Vest because he owns so many vests.
So John and I continue to sit at the bar and sip our Grey Goose martinis with three perfect olives. We continue to whisper to each other as we observe the people dining at the restaurant, their clothing, their behavior, their food, their wine.
That’s when Frank comes up to us. “You two look like you want to eat.” Oh crap. Crap, crap, crap. We are busted. Busted for staring at all of his patrons!
Lo and behold, we were not, in fact busted.
“Well I think we can arrange for you to have a table,” Frank smiles.
My jaw dropped. I felt like a little kid who had just been told that she is going to Disney World.
“God.” John mouths to me. We are getting a TABLE. People wait for six years for a table here. People pay $3000 in charity auctions to get a table here. People DON’T get a table here.
We. Got. A. Table. At. Rao’s.
Frank couldn’t have been any sweeter. “Beautiful eyes she has”, he told John. I was flattered. And I was hungry.
There are no menus at Rao’s. Frank rattled off our choices with the familiarity of a priest officiating a bride and groom’s wedding vows. That menu is sacred to him.
We ate a caprese dish (fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes with olive oil and sea salt); clams; mussels, a pasta dish rabe, shrimp, and I don’t even remember what else. I was so caught up in the environment and my palate was just so pleased it didn’t even know what to do. It just went into this delicious satisfied trans-like mode. I love that on the right hand side you can see the chef's feet in the kitchen. John pointed that out to me in this photo:
Between courses, I was immensely entertained by the environment. The atmosphere of Rao’s was somewhere between an Italian wedding reception in my family and the basement of someone’s Italian home in New Jersey. We were just missing the Jordan Almonds and a boxing bag hanging from the ceiling.
We could have been in 1959 and part of “A Bronx Tale” with Chazz Palminteri and I would have believed you. You are transported back in time at this joint. The first six notes “When the moon hits your eye” made John and I both roll our eyes and smile at the same time. It is SO kitschy and SO quintessential Italian at Rao's.
We danced. We laughed. We tried to discretely take photos. The next thing I knew, I was in a congo line.
Yes, you read that right. A congo line. A congo line that tried to go into the kitchen, but got kicked out and had to settle for the narrow aisles between the ten tables of the restaurant.
It was a magical night. It ended with coffee with Frangelico. John and I both shared the same sentiment: this was an amazing and magical once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The next day at work I was called in regards to a pretty serious student emergency and I was dealing with this student in peril near John’s office. I cannot really disclose the details, but it took awhile and I had to put on my serious hat and attempt to help this student. John asked me if she was going to be okay (she was) and as he observed me in my professional role, guiding this student, he could only think “Yesterday she was in a congo line at Rao’s.”