I’ve always wanted to go to Rao’s, but I could never get a table. But then a friend who knows the owner invited me there for dinner one night. We drove up and left the car on a dark, deserted street in East Harlem under the scrutiny of a couple of beefy guys in suits. Inside the small corner restaurant, which was hung with signed celebrity photographs and old Christmas decorations and reeked of cigar smoke, we were seated immediately at one of its 10 tables. A waiter with a hoarse voice asked us whether we’d like the wine from the bottle with the green label or the one with the gold. The food, which was served family style, was great and so was the wine from the bottle with the gold label, which was very expensive.
Recently, the son of Rao’s owner, Frank Pellegrino Jr., opened Baldoria, a restaurant in the theater district. Dinner at Baldoria was a very different experience. We walked into a jostling vestibule where a harassed hostess tried to persuade us to wait at the bar until our party was complete. The place was packed solid, mostly with tourists. Service was friendly but slow, and the feeling of being in a tourist spot was accentuated by the side orders of unnecessary vegetables pressed upon us, dishes “for the table” that had already been individually ordered, and unrequested bottles of mineral water that topped up the bill nicely.
Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw magazine, was at the next table, dressed in a Superman T-shirt. His companion also wore a T-shirt; hers was patterned like the lining of a Burberry raincoat. There was no point in wondering what on earth they found to talk about, since conversation at Baldoria is virtually impossible. The noise bounces off the wood floor and walls (which were covered with carpet and fabric in Baldoria’s former incarnation as Wally and Joseph’s, a steakhouse) and reverberates around, making you feel like you’re sitting in the middle of a battlefield. I suppose noise gives a place a certain energy, but I heard recently that some restaurant owners like it because it makes customers drink more. “I’m not supposed to drink,” yelled one of my friends when he sat down. Five minutes later he’d ordered a vodka martini straight up. There you have it.
The decor at Rao’s slowly evolved and acquired a patina over the years; Baldoria’s is the work of a designer. It’s a beautiful simulation of a turn-of-the-century New York Italian restaurant, on two floors seating 62 downstairs and 74 upstairs, with a mahogany bar, mirrors, brown leather banquettes and pressed-tin ceilings that look yellowed by cigar smoke. There’s a 50′s juke box like the one at Rao’s on each floor, but the songs I heard at Baldoria (apart from what sounded like a modern rendition of “My Girl”) were more along the lines of Britney Spears than Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra.
Baldoria’s executive chef, Michael Shiell (who happens to be Frank Jr.’s cousin), has put together a menu with many of Rao’s signature Neapolitan classics–the marinara sauce, the roasted red peppers and the lemon chicken–but it’s also been updated with a raw bar and some lighter, more sophisticated Northern dishes. You can begin with Rao’s seafood salad, a simple mixture of lobster, crab, calamari and shrimp in lemon and olive oil. It’s one of those unfussy dishes that stands on its own. Don’t pass up the wonderful marinated roasted red peppers either, tossed with pine nuts and raisins in a fruity olive oil. The pasta e fagioli soup was so-so, and the baked clams oreganata bit tough and bready under a nicely browned crust. Mussels were a better choice, in a delicate white wine sauce.
I liked the new-style salads: arugula and shaved artichokes with lemon and Parmesan and a delicious combination of wild asparagus and fava beans with bufala ricotta cheese. But my favorite dish (and you’re not going to believe me) was the eggplant soufflé. I ordered it in a fit of masochism, for just recently I’d tried foie gras soufflé–an experience I hope to never repeat. But the eggplant soufflé was a veritable explosion of Mediterranean flavors with a wonderful aftertaste.
If you like peppers and Italian sausages you will find plenty to like about Baldoria’s menu. Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and crisp chunks of sweet and hot sausage could not be bettered, nor could the sausages with peppers and onion, or the thick, pink veal chop which came under a thick curtain of roasted hot and sweet peppers (watch out for those innocent-looking green cherry peppers; they are fiery). Game hen was tender and juicy, with sausage, peppers, mushrooms and herbs.
Pollo al limone, a Rao’s signature, is made by broiling the chicken first, then cutting it into chunks and browning it in a coating of lemon juice, herbs and olive oil. It was a bit dry on this occasion, but the crispy skin was delicious. Too bad the veal scaloppine with capers and lemon was gluey from the flour, and shrimp with bread crumbs and oregano was dry and salty. Monkfish with sherry sauce was dull (and I confess to a prejudice against this fish. It’s either great–on rare occasions–or boring, with nothing in between). Branzino (Mediterranean bass), on the other hand, is a fish of subtle character; it was cooked simply with carrots and leeks in sea water, which gave it a clean, briny taste. Grouper was good, too: a lovely plain summery dish with arugula, lemon and slivers of Parmesan.
Baldoria’s desserts are lavish, rich and addictive. They include cassata, a bombe filled with ricotta mousse with chocolate, hazelnuts and cherries, topped with white chocolate sauce and a light, creamy chilled strawberry zabaglione. Fresh peach semifreddo with wine syrup was ordinary, but the small beignets, puffs filled with chocolate caramel and espresso cream, were splendid.
Even though its doors are open to a very select few, the mystique of Rao’s has spawned something of a cottage industry, with a line of food products, including a bottled tomato sauce, a CD of their jukebox hits and even an award-winning cookbook. Certainly Baldoria’s food is as good as I had at its uptown sibling. I came to Baldoria one night with a friend who is lucky enough to be a regular at Rao’s. What did he think? “Rao’s is quieter,” he said.
249 West 49th Street
Noise level: What? Did you say something?
Wine list: Mostly Italian, well priced with interesting choices
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Main courses $18.50 to $56
Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6 p.m. To 11 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star:a Poor