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How Rao’s became the most exclusive restaurant in New York City

A reservation at this New York institution of Italian haute cuisine can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.

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Rao’s, before being a recognized brand of sauces, was a very coveted restaurant that everyone wanted to belong to, but very few could access. An exclusivity that continues to this day.

And the fact is that a large part of society is unaware that the Rao’s recipe comes from one of the most symbolic restaurants in the United States and/or from this emblem of haute cuisine since 1896.


Since it first opened its doors in 1896, this restaurant has been known for presenting a menu with which to experience the Italian rituals that Vincent Rao and Anne Pellegrino unwittingly passed on to generations to come.

But the story goes back much further. It all began when Anthony Rao moved with his parents from Italy to the United States. There he bought a small place in Italian Harlem -then a large Italian-American community- and ran the restaurant until his death in 1909. Louis Rao would then take over the business.

After Louis’ death, his brother Vincent Rao took over the restaurant from his wife Anna Pellegrino Rao, as an essential stage in which traditional Italian dishes gained much more prominence on the menu, being the origin of much of the identity of today’s menu.

In 1999, Vincent passed away and the restaurant was inherited by Frank Pellegrino, nephew of Anna Pellegrino, and Ronald Straci, another close relative.

The heritage and tradition of family recipes that grew up with Rao’s evolved and reinvented itself over the years, expanding like the universe throughout all of its locations: from the flagship in New York, to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, serving some of the world’s most powerful dishes.

Rao’s circle in NY

However, his most representative place is and always will be the one in New York. There, its list of regular customers became the ‘who’s who’ of New York’s cultural and artistic elite, which continues to boast of having served personalities such as Woody Allen, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Nicholas Pileggi, Frank Sinatra, Robert DeNiro, Donald Trump, Danny Aiello or Al Pacino.

Of course, as a good Italian restaurant, it also welcomed at its tables diners affiliated with the Mafia, such as members of the Casa Nostra, John Gotti, Paul Castellano and Lucky Luciano. It has even been the scene of some alleged mafia-related crimes such as robberies, suitcases with corpses on the sidewalk, and even murders.

Politicians, athletes and mass idols were also part of this circle or cult of Rao’s, as a valuable experience that you can only get if you are a regular customer ‘with the right to a table’, or if you are lucky enough to be invited by someone who is.

In this sense, unlike any other trendy NYC enclave, this small East Harlem restaurant reserves the only ten tables in its dining room for that select group of regulars.

The table holder decides what to do with the table: whether to use it, lend it to friends or donate the reservation to charity auctions. A dinner at Rao’s can fetch several thousand dollars.

The gastronomic experience

It is said that eating at Rao’s becomes a magical ritual that begins at dusk, during the dinner service, around 7 pm. From the table, the chefs offer the diner a series of Italian specialties, which vary depending on the evening session, but almost always include their signature dish: their famous meatballs with tomato.

The Rao’s empire thus goes far beyond their East Harlem restaurant or their edible line, transcending over the past decades as a status symbol and/or the most exclusive venue in the United States.