The first time I meet Frank Pellegrino, the co-owner of the venerable East Harlem institution Rao’s, he is sitting at a round little table that’s been placed just outside the front door for him, the better to enjoy the warm summer breeze that is rolling in from the East River, past the FDR Drive and down along Pleasant Avenue. Frankie No, as he is called because of his habit of turning down requests for reservations, is sitting across from Frank Schipani, a former Director of Retail Development at Giorgio Armani Collezioni and Head of Sales Training for Hugo Boss. The two Franks are old pals, so they are in the habit of sipping some white wine and ruminating on a variety of topics that an interested observer might file under the hashtag #menswear.
A whiskey sour is brought out post haste and I sit down as the conversation turns to a made-to-measure suit from Eidos Napoli that Frankie No is waiting on. He’s excited to try on the slim silhouette that the company has become known for, which isn’t really surprising because clearly Frankie No is, first and foremost, a sartorially-inclined fellow. On this particular night he is wearing a glen plaid single-breasted suit with a vent-less, full-cut look that is reminiscent of something that Attolini or Caraceni might have produced in the 1930s. When he mentions the Marinella ties that he picked up during his last trip to Naples, I am left to wonder how it is that I am only just now discovering this man and his restaurant for the first time.
Of course, I have known about Rao’s for years, having grown up just a short walk from the place. From an early age, my father was constantly reminding me to stay out of places in which I have no business and the dwindling Little Italy section of the East Harlem of my youth fits that description, at least in his mind. This may have something to do with the eatery’s historical “connection,” for lack of a better word, with certain elements of the mob that are ever-present in the neighborhood. It is a history that goes all the way back to the Roaring Twenties and a fellow named Joseph Rao - an uncle to Frankie No - who is known as Tough Joey and is generally pretty chummy with other like-minded individuals from around the neighborhood with names like Trigger Mike and the Dutchman.
The restaurant’s mystique is tangible from the moment that you set foot in the place - it hangs in the air somewhere above the wonderful aromas that emanate from the kitchen. It’s a feeling that one only finds now in certain parts of New York, away from the city’s main arteries where residents are cocooned in the homogenised blandness of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. No, Rao’s is unique because it offers a glimpse of an earlier, somewhat grittier, cityscape – one littered with places that had names like Dempsey’s and Lindy’s and Jilly’s.