Over the holidays, I experienced a true Christmas Miracle. I had the privilege and honor to dine at the legendary Rao’s Restaurant in New York City. You may know Rao’s for their amazing jarred marinara sauce, but this 10-table Southern Italian eatery is where it all began. Dining at Rao’s is one of the toughest reservations to get in the entire country. In fact, they don’t have reservations at all, the tables are reserved for regulars who have been dining there for decades.
I was in shock when my husband, Brad, called and told me that we were having dinner at Rao’s. One of his close colleagues, Dr. Paul Sethi, had been ‘gifted’ a table by a patient. Amazing, right? So there I was on a random Tuesday, getting ready to experience all that Rao’s had to offer.
The restaurant is still at its original location, 455 E 114th Street in East Harlem. It’s old school – think a 1970’s wood paneled, cozy basement – so it feels more like you’re having dinner in someone’s home than in an exclusive restaurant (the Christmas decorations stay up all year long to keep things festive).
As soon as we arrived, we were escorted to our table and greeted by Ron Straci, one of the founders and co-owners of Rao’s Specialty Foods. There is a full bar, lively with regulars full of holiday cheer. Every table is set with small wine glasses and a breadbasket. There are no menus. A lovely man named Joe rattled off all of our choices, course by course. There had to be 20 different types of pasta and they even had gluten-free options!
Each of us ordered individually, but everything was served family style. The dishes weren’t complicated or overdone - perfectly simple with good, fresh ingredients. I ordered Tomatoes and Mozzarella – the cheese was wonderful! There was Clams Oreganata and Rao’s Famous Lemon Chicken – this is the dish that Ina learns to make when she visits Executive Chef Dino Gatto and Rao's Restaurateur Frank Pelligrino in the Rao's kitchen - recipe and video here. Chef Dino comes out to greet all the tables, so we got to meet him and get a photo.
Along with Ron, Frank Pellegrino is a founder and co-owner of Rao’s Specialty Foods, which sells Ina’s favorite marinara as well as oils, vinegars, and marinades. In 1998, Frank wrote the Rao’s Cookbook, which includes many recipes from the menu, and in 2004 he continued with a second cookbook, Rao’s Recipes From the Neighborhood. I was able to grab a cookbook at the restaurant ad have it signed by Dino and Ron!
It was such an amazing experience and I’m very lucky that I had the opportunity to dine in one of the oldest family-run restaurants in the county. I will definitely try a few recipes from my new cookbook and I will never forget the simple, authentic, true family-style dining experience!