Dinner at Rao’s

By Amrisa Niranjan, Brand Lead for FoodServiceDirect.com

Hi everyone – Amrisa Niranjan, here. I’m the brand lead for FoodServiceDirect.com. A while ago, I went to dinner at Rao’s. Here is a full review of what it was like.

A year or so ago, I was haphazardly invited to a table of 8 at Rao’s in NYC. It’s a tiny Italian restaurant in East Harlem, here since the late 1800’s.  I had never heard of it (to my shame) – but apparently, it’s a tough place to get a table. You can’t make a reservation. Money won’t get you in. You can only have a seat here if someone who knows someone who knew someone asks you to join.

Lucky me, huh?

We pulled up to the restaurant, a red painted restaurant. Someone outside tells us to park in front the hydrant – which has been painted with the colors of the Italian flag – this is their corner, it’s clear. We park elsewhere, because while the rumors are that the mafia eats here, we’re not in the mafia, at least not that I know of.

A few eyes glance at me. I am possibly the youngest person in the restaurant, who is here to dine. We sit at a small round table set for 8. The table is a mix of characters – a woman in the beginning of her acting career, another man referred to only as “the general” who has made his not-so-modest living during wars, his wife, a known artist from the UK, a man who runs legal for Universal Records, and a few others.

“I’ve been coming to Rao’s for over 30 years now. The food is special, the place is special. But mostly, the people are special. It’s aways an event. The clams oregenata are a must order.”

Alexander Massucci, Fania Records

I am always wondering how I ended up here, wherever that place is. But I decide to focus on the beauty of the experience rather than my worthiness of it.

A waiter comes. He is wearing a zebra print vest. No one else is. It isn’t a uniform, it seems to be just his self-expression. He takes a moment to greet the table, smiling all the while. He welcomes each guest individually and asks if they have been here before. Few have. The place is covered in photographs of famous faces. There are Christmas decorations up; it is July – I’m told there are always Christmas decorations. The atmosphere can only be described as alive.

A gentleman, a server, grabs a chair and sits at the table; he tells us they serve family style here. He jots down, scribbles even, on a pad all of the orders. The man who made the reservation appears to be more friend than guest – he is met with hugs over handshakes. We order wine, sparkling water, stuffed clams, calamari and lobster, tomato and mozzarella (is it an Italian dinner without it?), and cooked red peppers with pine nuts and gold raisins. It is all delicious.

I talk with the legal music industry expert, the artist, and the actress. Each person shares a story of how they met the man who made the reservation, Alexander Masucci, of Fania Records. I learn about art, dreams, and how a person goes from playing bass in a high school band to running the legal department of a record label – the guests are as good as the food. I am curious and absorbent as always. A British gentleman at the table ensures each glass is consistently topped off with red wine.

Course two comes. Asparagus, swirly carbs of pesto, large meatballs smothered in red sauce, a plate of roasted chicken. I eat everything I can when my mouth isn’t rambling about nebulas, pitbulls, and why art is still my favorite thing in this world. There is a song playing and the table begins to sing along terribly. The table adjacent to ours is singing too. Soon there is the most horrific chorus belting from both tables with two gentleman, one from each table leading the song.

I laugh so much, because I cannot comprehend that two tables of strangers are singing to one another horrendously out of tune together over dinner.

Dessert is ordered. Coffee is poured. Liquor is placed on the table. 

Dinner isn’t a meal, it’s an experience here. If you are lucky enough to dine here, do it. And when you go, remember you are in New York, in no particular point in time, in no particular moment but the one you are in. For once, put down the phone and choose the dim ambience and the red glow of this place over the reflecting LED glow of your device. Do it with no expectations, do it with your whole heart and your whole stomach, but more than anything, do it because you deserve this seat at the table and this is your world and your city for years to come.

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