The owner of New York City’s famed Rao’s Italian restaurant, reputedly the toughest place in the Big Apple to get a table, died this week after a bout with lung cancer. Frank Pellegrino Sr. was 72.
The restaurant has thrived in Harlem, through some of the neighborhood’s most dangerous times, since 1896. It features only 10 tables, and follows one of the most unusual seating policies in the industry. Seven of the 10 (two of which were added during a relatively recent renovation) are “owned” by regular customers. Those patrons in essence have a right of first refusal. They can come every night, lend the table to friends, or donate the seating for charity auctions.
The restaurant does only one seating per night, and only Monday through Friday. No reservations are taken.
Pellegrino had to turn away so many notables, including Warren Buffett, that he was nicknamed Frankie No.
Pellegrino started working at the restaurant in 1973, when it was owned by his aunt and uncle. After they died in 1994, Pellegrino and a cousin took over the landmark, a known haunt of showbiz celebrities, restaurant aficionados and wise guys.
He also had a long career as an actor, best known for his recurring appearances in The Sopranos, where he played an FBI agent, and Goodfellas.
The restaurant’s eccentricities put it on every serious restaurant fan’s must-visit list. The demand led to the opening of Rao’s restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, now run by Pellegrino’s son, Frank Jr.
The restaurant also marketed a Rao’s-brand spaghetti sauce, and a cookbook based on its old-style Italian recipes was a best-seller.