Frank Pellegrino Sr., 72, died of cancer yesterday. He was the owner and the heart of Rao’s, the storied East Harlem restaurant that’s the hardest table to get in New York.
“Rao’s will never be Rao’s without Frankie,” says Bo Dietl, his closest friend and former NYPD detective (who helped catch the Son of Sam), founder of Beau Dietl & Associates — and now New York City mayoral candidate.
Open since 1896, the restaurant was founded by the Rao family; when Vinnie Rao died, he willed his ownership of the restaurant to his wife, Anna Pellegrino Rao, Frank’s aunt.
Dietl says he met Pellegrino in 1973, as a detective in the neighborhood, when Pellegrino was a bartender in the family restaurant, then a waiter, then the maitre d’. By 1977, Frankie gave Dietl his own table — “the big table toward the front,” he says.
That gift is why it’s so hard to get a table at Rao’s: There are no reservations, just table assignments, designated decades ago by Pellegrino Sr. and his Aunt Anna.
Shortly after Dietl got his table, Mimi Sheraton gave the restaurant three-stars from The New York Times, and a neighborhood restaurant that was often crowded became a destination restaurant that was impossible to get into — unless you knew someone.
Since then, “anyone who’s anyone,” has sat at that table, from Warren Buffett to Bill Gates, Bruce Willis, Tommy Mottola and Mariah Carey “when they first met,” Denzel Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who was filmed eating in the restaurant for The Wolf of Wall Street.
Pellegrino’s role in the restaurant landed him a role in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, as well as an FBI chef on “The Sopranos.” Dietl shared acting roles, also in GoodFellas, along with The Wolf of Wall Street, in which he played himself.
When his aunt died in the 90s, Pellegrino inherited the restaurant, along with his cousin, Ron Straci (with whom he since had a storied dispute.) Even with the opening of restaurants in Las Vegas and LA — as well as the Rao's product line of pasta, sauces, and olive oil — Rao’s has not lost luster, which many attribute to Pellegrino.
That’s because there’s been no renovation or overhaul, with the exception of repairs after a fire in the 90s. Rao’s remained as it has been, with black and white football photos and Frank Sinatra memorabilia on the walls. Dino Gatto — who cooks for the Giants for Sunday home games — runs the kitchen, serving family-style plates of lemon chicken, meatballs, and eggplant parmesan. Thursdays has been the night to go, a night that Pellegrino was sure to be there.
“He is and was the catalyst of the restaurant,” Dietl says. “We lost a little piece of New York when we lost Frankie yesterday.”
Pellegrino is survived by his son and daughter and his wife, Josephine. There will be a memorial service in the fall.