Rao’s in East Harlem. There is no menu, no photos, no names to be mentioned, and you’ll most likely never get in. But, in the rare case that you do, it will be the experience of a lifetime. In its 115th year, with only eight tables and one seating per evening, Rao’s is still the most exclusive restaurant in the city; renowned for serving local clientele, most of whom have reserved the same booth for the same night of the week year after year. These tables are owned like prime real-estate by New York City’s elite. If you want to come to Rao’s before 2013, it’s all about who you know here, and to date, the only exceptions have been made for Presidents.
From the minute you enter the small, charming restaurant, the staff makes you feel like you are in the warm presence of close family and friends. The restaurant is old school to the core and nothing has changed one bit. The dark wood booths and tables remain intact, the Christmas wreaths are still hanging in March, the jukebox is playing the Four Seasons, and photos of celebrities and politicians sitting in your same seat face you as you get ready to begin your meal.
The cuisine here is Southern Italian and it’s all about comfort and quality. Frank Pellegrino sits down at the table, chats for a bit, and then describes what’s on tap for the evening. No menu. No prices. The food comes out family style and has the look and taste of your Italian grandma’s dishes.
As for the perennial favorites, to start, the famous seafood salad, which comprises calamari, shrimp, crabmeat and lobster is lightly seasoned with lemon and olive oil. The mozzarella in the tomato and mozzarella salad is creamy, smooth, and fresh. The roasted red peppers starter has the perfect acidity. And as for my favorite, the fried mozzarella is lightly fried, smooth, firm, and cooked perfectly inside. The Ruffino Chianti Classico from 2005 was suggested. It was light and crisp and a lovely accompaniment for the appetizers.
The pastas. The homemade arrabiata and bolognese sauces were perfectly balanced and coated each pasta shell ever so delicately. We also tried the meatballs. Just meat, lightly cooked. Delicious.
As for the main course, we had the shrimp scampi and the restaurant’s namesake dish, the lemon chicken, both of which we devoured.
We finished our dinner with an assortment of ice cream and cheesecake — a very sweet ending to a peerless dinner.
Rao’s remains one of the city’s best kept secrets.
Raos, 455 East 114th Street, New York, www.raos.com