Saturday, July 08, 2006

Pleasant Dreams New York City Entry #105 Rao's

Rao's - the old school Southern Italian clubhouse, founded in 1896 at what is today a rare Italian corner of "Spanish Harlem" - is stuffed with "mystique." New Yorkers joke about the networking necessary to snare a reservation, six degrees of culinary separation. And those who are not so blessed (and some who are) turn up or look down their noses at a restaurant that represents, in this view, the "hysteria of hype." As Groucho realized, if Frank Pellegrino were to select YOU, is this really the place you would wish to dine? Rating restaurants by the effort to get a table, Rao's deserves three Michelin stars, but how would they know? Those Gallic judges surely didn't make the cut: Rao's is not listed.

When I arrived in Manhattan, I tried to get a reservation the old-fashioned way. I soon learned that the phone number was never answered (could it be caller ID?). It was a jape played on hopeful hicks. And in time, I came to believe that I was no more likely to meet Mickey the Vest (Rao's legendary sommelier) than I was to meet Mickey Mouse. And like a childish fantasy, I pushed Rao's from my mind, satisfied with Dominick's, Roberto's, Falai, and Marioland.

A few weeks ago, a deus ex machina occurred, implausible had it been scripted on Broadway. A colleague to whom I confided my fantasy informed me that a friend of a friend of a friend (and so on) who was supposed to dine bowed out. Let no seat be wasted; I was invited, warned that sometimes even reservations do not come to pass. And there I was - on leafy corner of Pleasant Avenue, a congenial lane if there ever was one. Being on my best behavior meant no flash photography, so a thin gruel of words must suffice (Bouley and Boulud don't seem to mind, but why chance it?).

From the street, Rao's resembles an upscale English pub, and the front bar dominates the room. (Rao's website needles hopeful applicants that "If you do not have a reservation, you can always have a drink at the bar." I am slightly dubious of this happy welcome, fearing the challenge of crowd control, but perhaps it is so). The room, walnut booths and circular tables, is of modest size with its most distinguishing design feature the excess of framed photographs on the wall. Of course, one no longer finds people strategizing to get into Sardi's, so that can't be all there is. The room is tight enough that gazing at the pictures is not likely. They reflect a surfeit of celebrity, rather than a visual guestbook. Life in Bloombergia insures that Rao's is smoke-free, but with enough imagination one can still smell those pungent Havanas.

Some trattorias trade on the celebrity at the stove - the auteur in the kitchen. Rao's is not among them. Anne Pellegrino Rao (the beloved "Aunt Anne"), the wife of then owner Vincent Rao, used to work the burners, but those nights have passed. Neither the website nor the gossip mill mentions the chef de cuisine. Whoever is cooking has much talent, but the food requires quick hands more than a nimble mind. Unlike Arthur Avenue's Roberto's, which chalks up its specials, suggesting the value added of kitchen inspiration, the verbal recital of dishes at Rao's does not advertise any offering as newly emergent from the gustatory brain.

What is crucial, what makes us all fighting fish, is the company. A possibility exists of being "where the action is." The restaurant is a cioppino of mugs, molls, toffs, cops, pols, profs, players, and the odd immortal Scientologist. But the heart of Rao's are Frankie (Frank Pellegrino, the co-owner), Joey (the maitre d'), and Mickey the Vest (the sommelier, outfitted in one of his 156 vests). Our night all three were present, and perhaps it was the sweet summer air or their innate charm, but we could hardly have been more accepted. Frank greeted us - and sized us up - at the door, and Joey and Mickey each visited the table. Joey pulled up a chair to explain the dishes and Mickey seconding our choice of a smooth, deep Banfi Brunello di Montalcino (I believe this was the Banfi we finally selected). From whatever random act of a chuckling God, we received a prime table, able to observe the community at the bar and in the booths. To insure that the evening was proceeding apace our reservation broker appeared to check on our good behavior, validating our bona fides (Rao's is the kind of place where that matters, a tactic less evident at Chez Panisse). We felt fuzzy, warm, and welcome, and were ready to spend on the dubious assumption that the size of our bill and our repetitious enthusiasm might at the end of this honeysuckle eve translate into a candied, "you'll come back now, boys."

So, we live to eat, no? Point one, no. My Dinner at Rao's was among my most memorable evenings through the Theater of Being There. For a few hours I belonged, and was damn glad. That night is recorded on the DVD of my DNA. Granted Woody Allen, Tony Bennett, Harry Potter, or the cast of South Park were not about, but we could imagine whom our fellow diners might be. And we were treated as if we might be them.

Point two. The food was, given its genre, impressive. I can't imagine traditional Southern Italian cuisine prepared with more mastery and panache. If Socrates were Bruni, he might label Rao's roasted sweet peppers as Platonic. Recall the sad tomatoes at Luger's. After tasting Rao's tomatoes, matched with mozzarella, I suspect some fiendish vegan gavage. Purists might have groused that the baked clams had gone missing under a mound of luxuriant buttered crumbs, but thinking of these bivalves as a oceanic stuffing made it lovely.

We selected two pastas, each perfectly prepared. Orecchiette (Shells) with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage and Penne with Tomato Sauce. I loved the mild, sweet spice of the tomato sauce, and the shells were as buttery as any. With two dishes split among four, we were on the right track.

As entrees, we chose herbed filet of sole, lemon chicken, and veal chop with peppers. The lemon chicken was simple, astonishing, and simply astonishing. The broiling of the chicken, browned to a moist blackened perfection, was matched by its snappy citrus marinade. No steamed yuzu, not even candied kumquat. The veal was juicy and tender, and the pepper, contributed a sweet-sour-spicy relish. I was less impressed by the sole, no danger of this fish being undercooked. It was fish of the old-school. The flavor was evocative, but the texture lacked bounce.

With our entrees, we ordered sides of escarole and spinach. I particularly treasured the slightly bitter bite of the escarole, but these were straightforward greens, boiled and buttered.

Tartufo, a bombe with vanilla and chocolate ice cream with a bit of raspberry jam, was surrounded by a rich chocolate shell. This dessert was as direct and immediate as a sweet can be, but none the worse for that. My friend's cheesecake was smooth, rich, and sweet. It was less the traditional New York slightly sour, slightly dry, slightly dense cake than how cheesecake is currently served throughout the land.

So, how was Rao's? If I claimed that it was a once-a-lifetime experience, I might falsely be on record that I have no desire to return. I lack the street cred to cadge a table without strings, but if I had to choose a place at which to be a benevolent patron, I can think of no sweeter spot than this starry venue on Pleasant Avenue.

Rao's
455 E. 114th Street (at Pleasant Avenue)
Manhattan (East Harlem)
212-722-6709

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