Rao's, in New York City, is impossible to get into. But here's a recipe from the owner himself!
Posted in , Jan 20, 2011
Every summer Chris and I vacation on Martha's Vineyard, where we spend cherished time with Chris's parents, Mary and Mike Wallace. We have met and made friends with many wonderful people during these magical times. One of the special couples we have become close to is Nancy Ellison and Bill Rollnick. She is a top photographer and he is an enormously successful businessman. But the point of this story is that they introduced us to Rao's—perhaps the toughest restaurant reservation to get in New York City.
Located on 114th Street in East Harlem, it looks like the quintessential Italian "joint"—with a bright red entrance down a few steps from the sidewalk, as well as year-round Christmas decorations. The food is truly fabulous, and it is known—justifiably or not—for a clientele straight out of The Sopranos. In fact, co-owner Frank Pellegrino portrayed FBI agent Frank Cubitoso on the popular show.
But what makes Rao's feel truly special is that it's impossible to get into.
There are only 10 tables, and every night, each table is, in effect, "owned" by a long-time customer. On their particular night, each customer either eats at "their" table, or lends the table to a friend. And you can be sure no table at Rao's ever goes empty. Outsiders need not apply. (The restaurant doesn't answer the phone, and if they did, it would still be impossible to get a reservation.)
Chris had been talking for years about how much he wanted to go to Rao's. When he found out Nancy and Bill have a booth there every Monday night, we arranged to borrow their table months in advance. When the appointed date arrived, we took Mary and Mike along to share in our evening of feasting on delicious homestyle Italian dishes.
Late in the evening, Frank Pellegrino turned on the jukebox and began to sing along to classic songs from the '50s and '60s. As it turned out, this was the week Mike announced he was finally retiring from 60 Minutes, after 40 incredible years on the show. Frank declared he would dedicate a song to Mike, and he sang Sinatra's "My Way"—changing the words to "He did it his way." There was not a dry eye in the house, especially not at our table.
One of the memorable dishes we had that night was Rao's Italian Wedding Soup. Frank says he grew up eating it in East Harlem. And when I asked him to share his recipe, he sent it to all of you with his love. Buon appetito!
1 head escarole, washed and cored
1 head chicory, washed and cored
1 head Savoy cabbage, cleaned, cored, and cut into eighths
Two 19-ounce cans cannellini beans, undrained
¼ cup olive oil
4 to 5 garlic cloves
¼ pound pancetta, chopped
½ pound hot or sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
One 28-ounce can imported Italian plum tomatoes, drained and hand-crushed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of dried oregano
¼ pound dried hot or sweet sausage, peeled and chopped
Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1. Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Add the escarole, return to a boil, and cook until wilted, about 1 minute. Remove the escarole with a slotted spoon and set it aside.
2. Boil the chicory in the same pot of water until wilted, about one minute, and remove it with a slotted spoon.
3. Boil the cabbage in the same pot until wilted, about two minutes, and remove. Reserve 5 cups of the cooking water.
4. Meanwhile, in a food processor, puree one can of the cannellini beans with the juices. Set aside.
5. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and discard.
6. Add the pancetta to the pot with the oil and cook, stirring, for one minute.
7. Add the sausage meat and cook, stirring and breaking it up, until fully cooked through, five to six minutes.
8. Add the pureed cannellini beans, bring to a rapid simmer, and add the crushed tomatoes. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano.
9. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Add the cooked vegetables, the can of whole beans with their juice, the dried sausage, and the reserved water and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes.
10. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with grated cheese.
This adapted recipe from Mr. Sunday's Soups by Lorraine Wallace is published with the permission of Frank Pellegrino, co-owner of Rao's in New York City.