Into the wee hours at Rao's:
Frank Pellegrino, Frank Schipani, Dan Flores, and Joe Gallo
Having grown up in East Harlem, I'd often heard about Rao's, the almost mythical Italian restaurant at the corner of 114th and Pleasant Avenue, across the street from Benjamin Franklin High School (which later became Manhattan Center). When I played in little league games by the FDR Drive near the back of Jefferson Park, my father and I would often pass the restaurant on our way to Rex' Italian ice shop on 118th street and First Avenue for a cold treat before heading home after a long, hot summer day playing ball. Of course, even back then, everyone talked about Rao's as a great place that you just couldn't get into, no matter how long you waited or how hard you tried. And so the restaurant was always in the back of my mind as something of a mystery that signified the East Harlem of another time and another neighborhood.
So imagine my surprise when I had lunch with Frank Schipani (Frank S. for short), who had just recently reached out to me after having read The Best Dressed Man In The Room. He mentioned in passing that he had actually been introduced to the book one night while dining at Rao's with a large group that included the owner, Frank Pellegrino. Apparently, Mr. Pellegrino had received a copy and (I would hope) enjoyed it as well, and so Frank S. suggested that I drop by some time and introduce myself. A few months later, when I thought that I would be up around that way, I mentioned to Frank S. that I might drop in for a drink if he wanted to join me. He agreed, and so we arranged to meet at the restaurant one night for a drink or two.
I was running late (having stopped at my sister's place to drop off a sweater she'd left at my house) and so I cut through Jefferson Park, which really hadn't changed much since I was a kid, although the pool certainly looked a lot cleaner than I remembered it. I came out of the park at the entrance right across from Rao's, where I found the two Franks sitting at a table outside the restaurant, sipping on white wine and enjoying a a nice breeze from a pleasant summer evening.
This is probably an understatement (and probably not much of a surprise to anyone who knows him) but Frank Pellegrino is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. If I had only spent an hour and a half sitting outside the restaurant discussing men's clothing and East Harlem with the two Franks and a whiskey sour in hand, it would have been a night to remember. But Frank went out of his way to introduce us to customers and friends as they came and went - you're really made to feel like you've been coming to the place for years, and this was a constant refrain that I heard from people throughout the evening. They come for the atmosphere that Frank has cultivated over many years -the fact that the food is amazing is an added bonus!
After awhile, Frank asked us if we would join him at the bar. We had a few more drinks there and I met a few more people from the neighborhood. Someone mentioned that it was only a matter of time before Frank got up to sing with the customers, which I thought was a joke until he got up and started crooning - he looked like Sinatra working the room at the Sands (I think it was something from Dion & the Belmonts).
A short time later, as I was talking to someone about the old Dee-liteful diner on 116th and First, Frank came by, put his arm around me, and said that he was having a few people at his table for dinner and asked if Frank S. and I would like to join them. Needless to say, it was an offer that I couldn't refuse.
It probably goes without saying, but the dinner was tremendous: Pasta in a white wine sauce with yellow zucchini, eggplant parmesan, sausage and peppers with sauteed chicken, and I washed it all down with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Through it all, it felt more like I was having a big family dinner in the cozy dining room of old friends or relatives. Frank was literally passing the food around the table himself and asking what we thought of this or that dish, and whether we wanted a little more of this or whether we'd had a chance to try that. When I wasn't eating everything in sight, I had a chance to talk about the book, which was passed around the table. Everyone seemed to enjoy the photographs and the essays, which is always enjoyable and quite humbling.
All in all, it was a great night filled with good food, wonderful people, and interesting conversation. I'm sorry it took so long to make my way over to Rao's - I hope to return in the near future.
Many thanks to the two Franks - Schipani and Pellegrino - for an altogether unforgettable evening. Their graciousness and generosity is truly heartwarming and genuinely appreciated.