Above: Rao’s restaurant in Spanish Harlem, one of the world’s most coveted reservations (image via Raos.com).
It was before September 11, when I was still working as an editor and wine writer at La Cucina Italiana in New York.
One of my myriad tasks for the magazine was to conduct “celebrity” interviews that appeared in the last pages of the “book” (as they used to say in print-magazine speak). It wasn’t always easy securing A-listers for the column but a call into Rich Kind’s publicist’s office was answered with a counteroffer: if I could get us a table at Rao’s, he would agree to meet me.
In case you are not familiar with the New York institution otherwise known as Rao’s, it’s one of city’s most exclusive restaurants and one of its most coveted reservations. The tables are “owned” by a select group of New York power brokers, insiders, and celebrities. Depending on the frequency determined by their arrangement with the venue, they need to use their table (some, I believe, were once-a-week affairs) or give it to someone else presumably vetted by the table owner. Hands down, it’s one of the hottest tickets in the city.
Doubtful that I would be received, I phoned the restaurant nonetheless. And to my great surprise and delight, not only did proprietor Frank Pellegrino, Jr. answer the phone, but he said he could accommodate me as long as Rich and I came on the date that he had availability.
It was one of the most incredible nights of my life: the perennial Christmas lights (Rao’s is always dressed for the holiday), the celebrities, the sports figures, and the opera singer who performed in the middle of the dining room… I’ll never forget Ronald Perelman (no joke!) asking me if he could bum a cigarette.
At the end of the evening, Frank gave me his home phone number and told me to call him anytime I needed a reservation. I was fortunate enough to visit the restaurant on two other occasions and each time, I would call his house and speak with his wife, who would refer my message. After a day or so, I would get a call back from Frank (these were the days before ubiquitous cell phones and messaging). He would tell me when I could come and needless to say, I cleared my schedule to accommodate his.
Over the weekend, catching up on my New York Times, I read that Frank had passed away. For someone known for turning away some of the most famous and most powerful people in the world (read the obituary to get a better sense of how hard it is to get into Rao’s), he was always the sweetest and warmest host to me and my friends. Just a regular guy with a big heart who happened to own some of the most sought-after tables in the world.
Frank, thanks for everything you did for me. You were a true mensch and a New York original. Rest in peace, friend.
I’m actually on my way to New York today. Buona domenica and see you on the other side…