Rao’s Celebrates a Decade of Excellence and Longevity
Rao’s, one of our nation’s oldest family-owned and -operated restaurants, located at 455 East 114th Street in East Harlem, was founded in 1896 by Charles Rao, and is still thriving to this day, celebrating its 120 year anniversary. With such long lasting success, the legendary Southern Italian restaurant expanded to Las Vegas, as Frank Pellegrino Sr., Frank Pellegrino Jr. and Ron Straci carried on the century-long family tradition of home-style Italian cooking by opening a larger version inside Caesars Palace on December 6, 2006. Now exactly one decade later, and like its original rendition, it continues to flourish. We sat down with fourth-generation Co-Owner Frank Pellegrino Jr., Las Vegas General Manager Marie-Joe Tabet and Las Vegas Executive Chef Fatimah Madyun to learn some of the reasons for the Southern Italian restaurant’s long lasting success and to add our congratulations to completing their first decade of operation.
First of all congratulations on your 10 year anniversary! Can you share with us some of the history of Rao’s and what led to the decision to branch out from NYC to Las Vegas?
FPJ: Speaking from my own history of Rao’s, I grew up in the restaurant beginning as a busboy while watching my Great-Aunt Anna and father cook in the kitchen. This started my love for food and hospitality. I’m still “head busboy” and am waiting for my promotion!
We’ve been blessed with wonderful opportunities that were just too good to pass up, which have led to our Caesars Palace partnership and newest location in Los Angeles, CA.
To what extend does the Las Vegas Rao’s resemble its New York counterpart?
MJ: Las Vegas holds 2 “Rao’s rooms” which are replicas of the restaurant in NYC. The restaurant in NYC is nearly impossible to reserve a table since tables are passed through generations with a total of 10 tables. One unique tradition NYC has is that there are no menus and the host of your table will choose with the server based on that evening’s selections and all items are served family-style.
In Las Vegas, we have the capability to really give everyone a taste of Rao’s since we can hold up to 350 people at a time. We have established our regulars who are extended family but hope to acquire their 120 years of loyalty. We only have 110 more years to go! ?
What makes Rao’s stand out from other Italian restaurants and other fine dining eateries?
FPJ: At Rao’s we make our guests feel as though they are dining at our home. We want people to experience our restaurant, not just “dine.” This has afforded us the opportunity to create friendships and only want to create more.
MJ: I always try to explain to people that Rao’s is a destination in itself. Usually, people go to dinner and their highlight for the evening is a show or nightclub, but for people who have experienced NYC, that’s their final destination. In Las Vegas, we try to replicate that experience but being a transient city it’s hard to create that.
What are some of your favorite items on your food menu?
FM: My favorites on our menu are the Caesar Salad, because I believe we have the most flavorful in town; Eggplant Parmesan, which gives vegetarians an option to enjoy something fulfilling; and the Lasagna, which is full-bodied, rich and delicious.
MJ: My favorites are the Seafood Salad, which was a winner on Throwdown! with Bobby Flay; our Veal Chop with hot & sweet cherry peppers; and lastly, you can’t forget desserts which are made in-house the NY cheesecake is my number 1!.
How about some of your top cocktail creations?
MJ: The “New Yorker” is our favorite and our guests agree as it is our top-seller. The drink is made up of Skyy Moscato Grape, St. Germain, fresh lemon & fresh basil and served martini style. It’s a great refreshing starter.
We have a great wine variety for selection. Our specialty however, is Italian wines.
Frank, we know you started out as a part time busboy at the East Harlem Rao’s when you were 13 years old. Can you tell us about those early experiences at the restaurant? At what point did you know that this business was your calling?
FPJ: One experience that sticks out is when I was excited that summer was here and I was going to be able to hang out with my friends at the beach. These plans were abruptly changed when my father, Frank Sr., surprised me with a summer job. You can guess where and what my reaction was at that moment. This moment was the beginning of the rest of my life.
Rao’s attracts a good share of regular customers, including entertainers, politicians and sports figures. Who are some of the top names that frequent Rao’s?
MJ & FM: You never know who you may run into at any of the three locations. That means you’re just going to have to dine with us and see! wink
Frank was recently on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and also on Harry with Harry Connick Jr. talking about the new Rao’s Classics cookbook. Can you tell us about these cookbooks? Do they give away the famous Rao’s recipe secrets?
MJ: The first cookbook titled Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking was written by Frank Pellegrino Sr. and is the original cookbook with original recipes. The second cookbook titled Rao’s Recipes from the Neighborhood: Frank Pellegrino Cooks Italian with Family and Friends has recipes that Frank Sr. grew up with and from friends and family in the neighborhood.
The third cookbook, Rao’s On the Grill: Perfectly Simple Italian Recipes from My Family to Yours, was Frank Jr.’s first cookbook. It takes the traditional in kitchen recipes and moves them out to the grill. There are also some new fun recipes for the summertime. Lastly, his most recent cookbook is Rao’s Classics: More Than 140 Italian Favorites from the Legendary New York Restaurant, which was released on Nov. 4. What I really love is the story in this book: Frank Jr. speaks about growing up in the restaurant and shares some great memories he has.
Every book shares secret recipes but Frankie always says the most important ingredient is love and without that the dish doesn’t come out right! The books also touch on history and family, which is exactly what the restaurant stands on and wants to deliver to each and every guest!
What does the future hold for Rao’s next 10 years?
FPJ: Our guest’s happiness is our ultimate success, so I look forward to the next decade being more jubilant than the first!