Dean Martin was singing “That’s Amore” when Frank Pellegrino Jr. saw his father pass through the red doors of Rao’s restaurant.
“Father!” said Mr. Pellegrino as he rummaged behind the bar for champagne glasses to hold the Dom Pérignon he had just uncorked.
The father said hello to his son. Then he peered into the small kitchen next to the restaurant’s entrance and got a glimpse of the future.
Four steps below street level, at the corner of East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, Rao’s, which Frank Sr. co-owns, has remained stubbornly resistant to change for more than 100 years. Even after a fire gutted the restaurant in 1995, Rao’s was rebuilt almost exactly as it was, a set designer’s vision of the quintessential old-school New York Italian restaurant: pressed tin ceilings, dark wood booths, wall-to-wall celebrity photos, year-round Christmas decorations and Italian peasant food. A place where cigar smoke mingles with the sounds of Jerry Vale, the Drifters and the din of a high-powered crowd, giddy that they have managed to get a table in the most exclusive restaurant in the city. For as Nicholas Pileggi noted in the introduction to Rao’s Cookbook , Rao’s is “the only certifiable condominium restaurant in the world.” The eatery’s 10 tables (up two since the fire) are essentially owned by Rao’s regulars–guys like sportscaster Dick Schaap and private eye Bo Dietl–meaning that it is virtually impossible for a non-regular to score a reservation.
The hopelessness of getting a table won’t change, but come spring, even those without “table rights,” as they’re called, should be able to experience the Pellegrino family’s brand of hospitality.
In late April, Frank Jr., who grew up in Rao’s waiting tables, is scheduled to open his own two-story restaurant at 249 West 49th Street. He would like to call his restaurant Specchio, which means mirror in Italian, although he recently discovered that that name may be copyrighted. Whatever the restaurant ends up being christened, the executive chef overseeing the stoves will be Isidoro Todaro, a Sicilian-born, non-English-speaking chef whom Frank Jr. and his Brazilian spitfire fiancée, Carla Madeira, discovered in Turin.
When Mr. Pellegrino entered Rao’s on Saturday night, Feb. 5, it was Mr. Todaro whom he saw in Rao’s kitchen. It was Mr. Todaro’s first time in the Rao’s kitchen, and his big debut in front of the extended Pellegrino family. Mr. Todaro had been in New York a total of five days. This was his first time in the United States; his first time ever on a plane.
Mr. Todaro, his wife, Antonia, and his daughter, Manuela, had been at the restaurant since 4 P.M. preparing a feast. Present for dinner were Frank Sr. and his wife Josephine; Frank Jr’s. cousin and godfather, Tommy Pellegrino, and Tommy’s wife, Deborah Pellegrino; cousins Susan Paolercio (who is also an investor in Frank Jr.’s restaurant), Rita-Ann and John Morales; and Ms. Madeira’s daughter from a previous marriage, Marcelle Braga, a former model.
Emerging briefly from the kitchen, Mr. Todaro, with his dark, wavy hair and tranquil eyes, did not seem nervous. Using Ms. Madeira as a translator, Mr. Todaro, who prefers to be called Doro, said, “I was nervous at first because I was late in arriving here, but now I am O.K.”
Frank Jr. added, with a smile, “This is probably the most pressure he’ll ever feel.”
When we asked the chef if he will live in New York, he nodded his head vigorously. “Manhattan!” he said.
“He’ll be living a block away from the restaurant,” said Frank Jr.
Did Mr. Todaro like what he had seen of New York so far?
Frank Jr.’s search for a chef involved a tour of Italy and interviews with more than a dozen candidates. He met Mr. Todaro, who is 49, via friends of Ms. Madeira who live in Turin. Mr. Todaro’s most recent restaurant in Turin was called Galliari. Initially, Mr. Pellegrino explained, he thought that Mr. Todaro was going to introduce them to other candidates. “We have dinner with him, and I’m waiting for him to say, ‘I’ll take you to meet the chefs,’ but instead, he says, ‘I want the job.’”
Mr. Pellegrino said he grappled with the idea of becoming a restaurateur since he was 5 years old. “I told my Dad then that I wanted to be in restaurants. My father said, ‘No, you don’t want to be in this business.’ Then, when I went to Connecticut State University on a wrestling scholarship, I said, ‘Dad, they don’t have a restaurant and hotel management degree.’ He said, ‘Forget it.’” (His father explained he was merely trying to insure that he did not unduly influence his son’s choice of career path.)
Yet while he was working in the graphic design field, Frank Jr. often spent his evenings working with his father at Rao’s. He said his decision to open his own place came last summer, when he and Ms. Madeira were dining at Lucky Strike in SoHo. “I looked around and I said, ‘I can do this.’ The next day, Sunday, we went to my parents’ house. I said, ‘Dad, I want to open my own place.’ He looked at me like, ‘Leave me alone.’ Then some people approached him about opening another Rao’s. He said, ‘Talk to Junior.’”
Investors in Mr. Pellegrino’s restaurant include real estate machers Steven Witkoff, the president of the Witkoff Group, and Stephen Siegel, president of Insignia-ESG Company Inc. Mr. Pellegrino’s father will serve as an adviser.
Mr. Pellegrino bears a close resemblance to his father (who has appeared in Goodfellas , Mickey Blue Eyes and The Sopranos ) and said that he sees his place as “a reflection of myself, my family, our heritage as Italian-Americans, as well as a reflection of the people going there. That’s what Rao’s is.”
Yet he knows better than to declare his place Rao’s Jr.
“The restaurant will define itself,” he said as he stubbed out a cigarette. “I don’t want to tell anybody what to think. I want it to be easy, unpretentious, fun. A place where your shoulders go down instead of up.” He said he had been taking his new chef on an eating tour: Nobu, Balthazar, Babbo, Mercer Kitchen, Lucky Strike, Harry Cipriani.
“I feel pressure, for sure,” he said. “But I’m never concerned about what people are expecting. This restaurant will come from our hearts. Forces of nature are shaping it.”
A force of nature could be used to describe Mr. Pellegrino’s romance with Ms. Madeira, whom he met two years ago when she dined at Rao’s. “The last thing I wanted to do was fall in love,” he said. “But when I saw her, I said, ‘My God, that’s the one. I’m going to lose my life, but I gotta try.’”
“He broke every glass that passed through his hand!” said Ms. Madeira, laughing.
On this night, however, Frank Jr. seemed calm and confident as he gave the signal for the family members to take their seats. As the group sat for the first course of pinzimonio, an array of fresh vegetables that were to be dipped in a special Tuscan vinaigrette, Frank Sr. raised his glass.
“This man is an incredible chef,” he said of Mr. Todaro. ” This man knows what he’s doing,” he said of his son. “I wish them much success.”
Then came plates of roasted peppers and beef carpaccio dressed with a Piedmontese anchovy dressing. A risotto cooked with squid ink and studded with braised slivers of the mollusk; homemade spinach ricotta gnocchi topped with a prosciutto cotto sauce; penne with fresh vegetables and smoked mozzarella sauce; a seafood salad fat with chunks of lobster. “They cook with their hearts, God bless them,” said Frank Sr.
With no wait staff on hand, Frank Jr., Ms. Madeira, her daughter and Mr. Todaro’s wife and daughter helped clear each course and set the plates for a new one.
For the second courses, Mr. Todaro turned out veal rolled with fontina cheese and artichokes and salmon sautéed with pink peppercorns.
The Temptations’ “My Girl” began playing on Rao’s jukebox, and, as he often does when the song comes on, the senior Mr. Pellegrino, a former singer, added his voice to harmonies of Eddie Kendricks and company. “I got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees,” he sang.
Slices of Mr. Todaro’s special ricotta cheesecake were being passed out, along with cups of espresso and small glasses of homemade limoncello, a syrupy after-dinner drink made from lemons that could power the space shuttle.
Mr. Todaro had come out from the kitchen, and Frank Sr. had him by the cheek, smiling and saying something into his ear. Frank Jr. came around, and the three men posed for a picture. The Macarena beat began thumping from the jukebox, and Ms. Morales and Ms. Braga began to dance.
“This is what it’s all about,” said Frank Sr. “The rest don’t count.”
Everything had been going pretty smoothly at fashion week: Shows were starting 35 minutes late, and even Ivana Trump was using the portable potties. But at the Oscar de la Renta show on Tuesday, Feb. 8, two protesters with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, women in all black, took to the runway carrying banners that read “Fur Shame.” They were sort of smiling, and there was a brief moment, while they were unfolding their protest materials, when it seemed like they might be part of the show.
They were right in front of CNN style reporter Elsa Klensch, who was grooving away to the “Mrs. Robinson” soundtrack. Just then Richard Renda, the long-haired, haggard-faced director of Totally Cool, a cable station, leaped from the photo pit screaming, “Noooooo!” He grabbed at the banner and tackled the two women to the floor, none too gently. Security rushed out. The audience clapped.
Then, during the show, every time the slightest hint of animal product– an ostrich feather! –appeared, the audience–particularly the Lauder and Miller sister section–burst into loud applause. Protesting the protesters.
Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley, swathed in fur, headed for the door before the lights came up. Outside, New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham snapped ladies in fur as they marched defiantly down the steps. Mr. de la Renta lit a cigarette. “I think those P.E.T.A. protesters should stop wasting their time,” he said, “stop protesting something that’s been around forever, that’s part of nature, and pay for some kids to go to school or something.”