Getting into Rao’s and a Great Cabernet

March 15, 2013
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By Nicholas Harary

There are few places on earth that are as interesting or unique as Rao’s in East Harlem, New York.

My first experience came at the invitation of the owner, Frank Pellegrino. I was working as the sommelier at Jean Georges at the time. I guess he liked whatever wine I recommended because he extended an invitation to come eat at Rao’s.

A popular dish at Rao’s in East Harlem is meatballs.

A popular dish at Rao’s in East Harlem is meatballs.

I knew it was a tough reservation to get but I did not know how rare it was to get an invite. I told Jean Georges and he said, “Make sure you take him up on his offer.” I was a bit shocked; here was the master of modern French haute cuisine telling me not to miss out on an Italian-American red sauce and meatball place. “When I want to go,” he said, “I call my partner, Phil Suarez, who has to call Bob Giraldi because he knows a guy who knows the bartender, Nicky the Vest. He gets us in.”

I asked him what he orders when he goes, he said, without hesitation, “Meatballs. By the way, Nicholas, can I get Pellegrino’s card?”

I buried that card deep into my pocket and told him no for the first time. “Sorry, chef, I think you need to get your own. I don’t know a guy who knows a guy…”

I hustled out of JG’s office, excited to see for myself what drew wise guys, celebs, politicians and pro­athletes to bend over backwards to gather together to eat eggplant parmigiana.

Upon arriving, we asked to see the menu. Joe, the longtime maitre d’, comes over, turns a chair around, plops down and says, “OK, boys, this is what we have … we have appetizers, then we have the pastas and then we have the entrees. How does that sound?” We all looked at each other and said in unison, “Sounds good.”

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Forget about a wine list, your choices are red, white and blush. Talk about a focused wine program! In the end, the food was as great as it has always been. I’ve gone nine times over the last 15 years. Not one thing has changed, that’s the beauty of this place.

Rao’s has a brilliant business plan. There are only 10 tables, each one of them “owned” by a few lucky individuals for each night of the year. They are closed on Saturday and Sunday so there are just 260 reservations per year. It’s the customer’s obligation to either come in for their weekly rez or fill the table with their friends.

There’s a funny story about Billy Crystal, who was giving the eulogy for Dick Schaap, the famous sports writer and owner of the first booth on the right every Monday. His first line was, “OK, who gets the table?”

Tom Farella has a similar business plan. Tom owns one the prettiest vineyards in southern Napa, growing cabernet, merlot and sauvigon blanc. He sells 98 percent of what he grows and has a cool map, organized by parcel and whichever winery has dibs on that plot. I wish Rao’s had a similar map of their tables. Would be a great read, for sure. There aren’t many places that would show Rudy Giuliani sitting next to John Gotti Jr. on a Tuesday night.

Anyway, Tom’s list of grape customers is a Who’s Who of Napa wineries, many of them getting huge scores for Farella Vineyard-designate wines. Tom does make a tiny bit for himself and a few good customers. He’s gotten pretty good press too; the 2009 cabernet got a 93 from Parker’s Wine Advocate, not bad for a part-time winemaker.

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The production is really tiny, just 303 cases. I got my hands on about 10 percent of that so please don’t scream at me when we sell out – it will for sure. It’s an outrageous cab, rich with cassis and black currant fruit, with a complex nose and a super-long finish. Delicious tonight or over the next 10+ years, don’t miss this one.


Nicholas Harary is the owner and executive chef at restaurant Nicholas in Middletown.

In 2011, Restaurant Nicholas launched its Nicholas Wines program. Each month, Nicholas Harary selects one to two wines to sell in the online store (www.restaurantnicholas. com). Chef Harary’s long-lasting, personal relationships with winemakers and his commitment to storing wine at 56 degrees from Day One equates to unique access, value and quality for Nicholas Wines customers. Wines can be ordered by the bottle and/or case and shipped or picked up at the restaurant.

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