The History Of Rao's

Exclusive restaurants can be a status symbol among the rich and famous. If you're a big shot, getting that coveted reservation shows the world that you can get into, and afford to eat at, whatever the hottest restaurant in town is. But hot restaurants can come and go. For a restaurant to stay in demand after decades in business can be quite a feat. Which is why the history of Rao's, the famous Italian eatery, is unprecedented. It's been in business since 1896, and it's still impossible to get into, at least in the New York location.

For decades, Rao's was the best kept secret in New York, a small, intimate Italian place with great food. But once the word got out in the late seventies that the food was to die for, the owner wanted to make sure the loyal customers didn't get squeezed out, so they kept their favorite tables, and you could only get in if you knew a regular. (As you'll read, Rao's became so exclusive there were literally nights where the owner himself couldn't get a table).

But thankfully getting a table at Rao's is no longer mission impossible. There's been a location in L.A. for nearly ten years now, there was a Vegas location for 15 years, and a Miami Beach location will be opening in 2023. Here's the history of Rao's, how it became one of the most exclusive restaurants in the country, and how you can enjoy some great Rao's food yourself.

Rao's opened in the late 19th century

Rao's has been located at 455 East 114th Street in East Harlem since 1896. It was originally a saloon, one room with a bar, purchased by Charles Rao, and as the current owners of Rao's state on their website, "Tradition and ritual are the heart and soul of Italian cuisine. Since 1896, the Rao's family has believed in sharing those traditions." Rao's is also reportedly one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in the country. Charles' son Vincent ended up owning the restaurant with his aunt, Anne Pellegrino, and then it came to be co-owned by Frank Pellegrino Sr. (who died in 2017, as Fortune reported), his son, Frank Pellegrino Jr., and Vincent's nephew, Ron Straci.

Frank Pellegrino Sr., the late co-owner of Rao's, told Famous Foodies, "It's a throwback, it goes to another era. My grandmother, my grandfather, my aunts, my uncles, this is what they brought to America. ... That's my objective, that's my goal, is to carry on that ancestry, to honor it, to respect it, and to share it with the people who come here."

Rao's has also displayed Christmas decorations all year round for over seventy years. Pellegrino Sr. said, "What it really means ... [is]  every day in America is Christmas. Every day. So therefore, they will never come down."

Why it's so exclusive

Rao's is a ten-table restaurant — four tables and six booths — and that's obviously one of the reasons why it's practically impossible to get a reservation. But there's more to it than that. The turning point where Rao's went from a well-kept secret to the hardest restaurant to get into came in 1977, when dining critic Mimi Sheridan gave it a three-star review in The New York Times (via Vanity Fair). After the review ran, the phone began ringing off the hook and never stopped. As Frank Pellegrino Sr. explained to Famous Foodies, "That's when I started assigning tables. I figured out the only way I could protect those who were loyal to us ... was by giving them tables. ... Every table, every night, has been booked since 1977."

Rao's regulars have their own table assignments (weekly, monthly, or otherwise), and these were set in stone by Frank Pellegrino Sr. and Anna Pellegrino (per Vanity Fair). When the members who have table rights pass on, their family usually inherits the table. Those who have a table can arrive whenever they want on their assigned night, or they can lend it out. Essentially, for a newcomer to come in, they have to know one of the regulars.

Indeed, Frank Sr. earned the nickname Frankie No because he turned down so many people trying to get in. Ironically, there were times when Frankie had to call a table regular to see if they were willing to give up their place — and if they turned him down, even Frankie No couldn't get a table in his own restaurant (per Famous Foodies).

A sampling of the menu

The menu at Rao's – which is used at the Los Angeles location — consists of Italian family recipes that came from Frank Pellegrino Sr.'s grandmother Paulina, his aunt Anna, and his Uncle Vincent, according to Bon Appétit. The meatballs at Rao's are a thing of legend, and they're made with ground veal, pork, beef, and seasoned breadcrumbs. Uncle Vincent's chicken is also a popular dish, where the chicken is charcoal broiled and topped with Vincent's personal lemon sauce (via USA Today).

The New York location has no menu. As USA Today explains, one of the owners "pulls up a chair and runs through a litany of pasta, seafood, veal and chicken options, basically making whatever you want ... the waiter kneels at the table while explaining the menu." Dinner costs about $75 a person, they don't take credit cards — you have to pay with cash or check only, according to Vanity Fair.

The Hollywood connection

Like a lot of exclusive restaurants, Rao's is a favorite of many Hollywood celebrities and famous people, if they can get in. According to their website, some of the big Hollywood names who have enjoyed meals at Rao's include Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Nicholas Pileggi (screenwriter of "GoodFellas" and "Casino"), Leonardo DiCaprio (as Deadline notes, one scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street" was shot at Rao's), Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, former President Bill Clinton. Vanity Fair also mentions that on some late nights, the jukebox might be accompanied by the likes of Keith Richards, Billy Joel, Celine Dion, and Rod Stewart. And according to Frank Pellegrino Sr. on Famous Foodies, the late Dick Clark also ate there every year before he hosted "New Year's Rockin' Eve." Given this all-star lineup, it's not surprising that Devour has listed Rao's on their top 10 "Celeb Hotspots." 

Also funny enough, Martin Scorsese did some of the casting sessions for "GoodFellas" at Rao's (per Bon Appétit). Pelleigrino Sr. can be seen in several scenes in the film playing Johnny Dio, and he also had a recurring role on "The Sopranos" as Bureau Chief Frank Cubitoso.

The mob connection

It's stereotypical to think of mob guys chowing down at a top-tier Italian restaurant, but reputedly some nefarious characters have indeed hung out at Rao's. Bon Appétit wrote that Rao's had a wide variety of clientele: "Some took a shot in the arts or gravitated to law enforcement, while others elected to take the perceived path of least resistance and enlist in a certain nefarious Sicilian co-operative that flourished in the shadows of American industry." John Gotti reportedly ate there once, and Lucky Luciano reportedly ate there as well.

In 2003, there was actually a killing in the restaurant. As Vanity Fair tells it, Albert Circelli, a made-man in the Lucchese family, was shot and killed by another mobster, Louis "Louie Lump Lump" Barone, because Circelli was heckling a woman singing for the customers.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the best-known regulars at Rao's is famed NY detective Bo Dietl, who secured his table in 1977, and who also has cameos in several Scorsese films. (The shooting at Rao's was eventually fictionalized in an episode of "Law & Order" called "Everybody Loves Raimondo's," and Dietl played the shooter.)

The James Caan connection

In 2000 James Caan worked with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects," "Mission: Impossible") on a film called "Way of the Gun." As McQuarrie told Ain't It Cool News, when he told the actor he was going to New York, Caan said, "I'm gonna get you a reservation at this restaurant. If I get you this reservation, you have to go." Caan told him to go to Frankie No: "He'll take care of you. I call him Frankie No because he always says no, he's always telling me he can't get a reservation."

When McQuarrie and his wife told the hotel concierge they needed a car to go to Rao's, the concierge was shocked and told them, "I've worked at this hotel for 20 years and I've never been able to get anyone a reservation at Rao's. ... I've had Bruce Springsteen standing right where you're standing, begging for me to get a reservation at Rao's and I couldn't do it." 

Of the restaurant, McQuarrie said, "You're in Harlem, but it's as quiet as any gated community you've ever been in in your life. ... By virtue of the fact we were guests of Jimmy Caan, it was suddenly as though you were eating with the King of Jordan. The treatment we got at Rao's was unbelievable! The best Italian meal we've ever had."

Rao's expansions

In 2006, the unthinkable happened: You could finally get a table at Rao's. Though the New York location is still nigh-impossible to get into, Rao's ended up expanding to Las Vegas (though this location closed in 2021, according to Las Vegas Weekly), and then to Los Angeles in 2013.

When it was open, the Las Vegas location made Rao's fare more accessible to all. One of the Las Vegas servers told USA Today in 2018, "I've seen more repeat business here than at any other place I've worked in Las Vegas. I get customers from New York who eat here two or three nights in a row just because they can't get into the one at home." And USA Today reported that the food was "just as good in Las Vegas, especially the signature dishes."

Rao's had reportedly been considering expanding to California for some time, and finally opened the location after they were in business for 117 years. As Frank Pellegrino Jr. said in a press release (via Eater), "We've had our eye on California for quite some time and think opening a Rao's in Hollywood is a natural progression for our family. The people of Southern California represent a large portion of our guests in Las Vegas, and many have become good friends of ours." In early 2023, Rao's will also be opening another location, this time in Miami Beach at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel (via Miami News Times).

Rao's at the supermarket

Even if you can't manage to visit a location in person, you can still enjoy a taste of Rao's Homemade products from the comfort of your own home. You can buy Rao's Homemade tomato sauce at practically any major chain, and Bon Appétit raved about it, saying, "We have a pretty loyal relationship with Rao's Marinara Sauce and firmly believe that it's the best jarred pasta sauce around." And as Rao's states on their official website, "Rao's Homemade quickly became the world's leading brand of premium pasta sauce and for good reason: Rao's sauces are simmered slowly and made in small batches with only the best ingredients, like pure Italian olive oil and hand-picked, naturally ripened tomatoes from southern Italy. Our sauces have no tomato blends, no paste, no water, no starch, no filler, no colors, no added sugar." 

Rao's also offers fresh pasta and frozen pasta dishes as well, like regular spaghetti, penne rigate, fusili, rigatoni, and more. Frozen dishes include four cheese ravioli with marinara sauce, frozen meatballs with sauce, and frozen meat lasagna, among others. Finally, in 2022 Rao's also expanded to frozen pizzas as well (via Bon Appétit). It's called Rao's Made for Home Brick Oven Crust Pizza, and it's now available at your local supermarket.