Sunday, 21 February 2010

Rao's, yes, Rao's

Ask 10 New York foodies what table they'd love to try once, and I'll bet you get more than three Rao's. The old-school Italian-American restaurant on the corner of East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue is a highly coveted meal first and foremost because most people can never eat there. You see, the 10 tables are "owned" on an annual basis by particular patrons, who have the right to occupy the table one night a month (or more) for the whole night. Rao's is only open for dinner, and only Monday through Friday. The "owners" of these tables, it is said, run the gamut from long-time neighborhood regulars (the neighborhood used to be Italian Harlem), to New York political honchos, celebrities, law enforcement, and the like. There's also the unfortunate and ubiquitous speculation that, as all things popular and Italian-American, there are men with "connections."

Interestingly, despite the exclusive hype, the food has always been reputed to be excellent, not always a sure thing for a celebrity hot-spot. The one indication most of us have is Rao's jarred tomato sauce. Growing up in an Italian-American home a jar of tomato sauce was sacrilige, but I will confess gladly that I have Rao's in my kitchen because it is truly excellent, and we don't always feel like cooking.

And Rao's sauce was as close as I had gotten until last Wednesday.

It turns out a long-time friend of mine has had a table for 10 years. I didn't know this until about a week and a half ago, though if I told you who it is, you'd say "of course he does. " In any event, he invited me for dinner with his son and a colleague late the week before. I must admit that I could think of little else from the moment he said it. It was a bit like looking forward to Christmas morning, as a kid. I spent a lot of time reading posts about the place, trying to figure out what to order, as this might be my only trip to Rao's.

Having read that the neighborhood could be a little rough, I took a cab. When you pull up, Rao's is the brightly lit, shiny Red and white corner beacon on an otherwise dark and drab Harlem block. People were huddled outside smoking and talking loudly. You can see most of the restaurant through the windows in the front. It was actually bigger than I expected, with more room between tables. The bar is long, and actually open to the public - though I don't believe you can eat there.

The place has an incredible festive energy. Everyone there seems to be enjoying it as a treat. The Negroni I had at the bar was very well made, for starters. We sat at our booth, and I surveyed the room. There were some notable, but low-key people there. The walls are covered with framed celebrity pictures. A man in a suit jacket came and pulled up a chair and explained what he had for dinner that night - he was the menu. He explained that the food is served family-style. I surrendered to my host - the only thing I knew I would chime in was if he didn't order meatballs.

We started with Rao's famous seafood salad, their home roasted red peppers, baked clams oreganata, and a simple tossed salad. The seafood salad had big chunks of lobster meat and squid, shrimp and crab in a light olive oil dressing. It was excellent. The roasted peppers were good. The baked clams acceptable but not memorable (to be fair, I had chosen them), and the salad was surprisingly tasty. I reminded me of the salads that my grandmother used to make, with oregano and red wine vinegar on chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes.

For pasta we had rigatoni with broccoli rabe and sausage and ravioli in marinara sauce. The rigatoni was cooked perfectly al dente, with plenty of broccoli rabe and pork sausage, but the sauce was a little thin. The marinara is excellent, and the ravioli were good (a little soft to my taste). Accompanying the pasta came the meatballs - one big one each. They're about the size of a baseball. They are incredibly moist, and indeed, medium rare on the inside. They have this excellent, garlicky, romano cheesey flavor. I fully understood the hype on these meatballs from the first bite.

It would have been easy to quit there, but we weren't finished. Jumbo shrimp oreganata and chicken scarpariello, chicken braised in white wine with hot and sweet sausage, and hot and sweet peppers. The shrimp may have been great, I couldn't honestly tell you because the chicken was absolutely delicious. It had exactly the right mix of salty, savoury and hot. I could've eaten another full tray.

By the time we were done, the place was really jumping. A notable celebrity had taken the table next to us, all the other tables were full, and the famous juke box had been turned up. The owners were making the rounds of the room - it was truly delightful. I didn't want to go home (and the difficulty finding a cab up there almost ensured I didn't).

Bottom line: the food runs the gamut from B+ to A+ - and there really is some A+. When coupled with the atmosphere, it is an unparalleled New York experience. If you have a chance, you should definitely go. With any luck, I'll have an opportunity to post on it again some day. P.S. they take only cash, and I have no idea what the bill was, though my sense is that it ain't cheap.

No comments: