The Head Bitches in Charge, Becca and Cori Sue, were invited to Las Vegas for Bon Appetit magazine’s 9th annual Vegas Uncork’d event. The Bitches were lucky enough to rub elbows with some of the greatest chefs in the world, try some of the best restaurants in Las Vegas, and enjoy all that the city has to offer. This interview is part of the Uncork’d series, featuring stories and interviews from the weekend. Thanks for having us, Bon Appetit!
It was the last Sunday of a most extravagant weekend at Vegas Uncork’d, and I was still full from the weekend. How could I possibly sit for a Sunday brunch? Especially an Italian one of Vegas proportions?
I made my way to Caesar’s Palace and to the Italian restaurant Rao’s, which is famous for its New York sister—a tiny, historic restaurant in East Harlem that often hosts celebrities and gangsters for spaghetti.
Being a New Yorker (I can call myself that now, right?) I should have known what I was stepping into. I was greeted by New York in the flesh: Frank and Frankie Pellegrino, the father-and-son duo who run this Rao’s in Vegas, but also the Rao’s in New York’s Harlem.
The family founded the restaurant in 1896, and since then they haven’t changed much. With only 11 seats in the New York joint, Frank has become famous for curating its clientele. Yes, it might be the scene of hush-hush celebrity meets, and even the occasional mobster shooting, but the food and the spirit has remained the same.
The Rao’s venture in Las Vegas elevated the family into major restaurateurs, and they have since opened a third location in Hollywood. The father-and-son duo were in Vegas for the Bon Appetit event, and they took me on a trip to Southern Italy, by way of East Harlem, with a multi-course, family-style brunch.
My favorites? The beef and pork braciola, Rao’s meatballs, and the sweet and hot Italian sausage braised together in a rich and flavorful Italian meat sauce known as “Sunday Gravy.” Perfectly paired with the authentic specialties were libations, of course, including Quercerto Chianti and Nuschese Pinot Grigio.
It’s unlikely I’ll ever get a seat at Rao’s in East Harlem, so dining with the Pellegrino duo was beyond a treat. And lucky for me, the guys even sat down with me for a few minutes after brunch so I could ask them a few questions. Here’s what they had to say…
Why did you decide Vegas and Hollywood?
Frank Sr.: Well ten years ago, the executive from Caesars’ Palace approached us about doing a restaurant in Las Vegas. We started negotiating and, ultimately, the deal was right. It took seven months to build, and we’ve been here ever since. It’s been a great partnership. They’ve been great to us, and we do a great business here, so it’s been mutually beneficial.
About a year and a half ago, another dear friend wanted to be involved and came up with the idea to go to Hollywood. We started looking and we found a dilapidated place. It was the old Hollywood Canteen, which has a lot of history, but we had to gut it. What we like about L.A. is that it’s off the beaten path and it is has history, which was reminiscent of Harlem. That was the allure for us.
Tell me about the restaurant in East Harlem?
Frank Sr.: My Uncle Vincent passed away about 20 years ago when he was 87 and started working in the restaurant when he was seven. He lived to get up in the morning and go to the restaurant. My Aunt Anna, his wife, was the head chef for 20 years. She’s the one who earned three stars in the New York Times. That was August 1977 and, from that day on until now, every table on every night is booked. We’re very fortunate. I’m still in awe of the place. I sit at the bar and watch what’s going on in the restaurant and I think, “I can’t believe this.” I have the greatest clientele in the world and I have a great staff. It’s very intimate and with the same recipes we’ve always had.
Tell me about the menu that has made you so popular?
Frank Sr.: We have seafood salad, roasted peppers, baked clams, tomato and mozzarella, all the staples of Southern Italian cooking. I do pasta fagioli as a soup with escarole and beans. These are old staples and we still do them.
I’ve been there 40 years and my sense of obligation is that I come from that neighborhood and I’ve always wanted to carry on that heritage. Because of that we haven’t changed, and we won’t change.
So the menu has really not changed at all?
Frank Sr.: Over the past 20 years, I’ve added a couple things, but the basic staples are there constantly. We did the same thing here. The staples you can find in New York, you can find in Las Vegas and LA. We do the same dishes in all three restaurants, and I have a great staff in each one of them.
Harlem is where brunch started with chicken and waffles. Why don’t you guys serve brunch?
Frank Sr.: One of the reasons is my head chef, Dino, is a Giants fan, so he has to go the game on Sundays. I do the same business every weekday, so I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to open on weekend. But, don’t get me wrong, if I had to, I would.
Tell us about the Sunday Gravy?
Frank Sr.: For me, the origins of Sunday Gravy started in my Grandma’s kitchen. That’s really my induction into Sunday Gravy. My grandmother would cook it through the course of the day, so she’d start cooking at 10 o’clock. By 12, she’d be frying meatballs and, by 1:15, the younger kids would come in and eat the meatballs. By 12:30, we’d be getting chased around the house with a wooden spoon, make more meatballs, and even more meatballs. It’s really a hallmark of our week. No matter whose house we were in on Sunday, it was Sunday Gravy. It’s really what we called home.
How has Vegas changed your perception of food or cooking?
Frank Jr.: I don’t think it has dramatically impacted our cooking, primarily because of what my father said. We are loyalists and we do everything we possible we can to preserve the integrity of the dishes and recipes.
The challenge for us, initially, was finding all of the proper and rights ingredients in Vegas, but we worked that out early on. The other side is some of the new people we bring in, and their induction into the nuances and the philosophy of the recipes.
What is the induction? Is there hazing?
Frank Jr.: No, there’s no hazing, ha. You have to cook in the restaurant in New York first, which could be considered hazing to a certain degree!
Frank Sr.: We bring some of the staff to New York to learn and work, and we sent Dino out here to work with the kitchens in Las Vegas and L.A. Everyone gets to know the philosophy of what we do and why we do it.
Frank Jr.: The other critical part of what Frank Sr. is saying is the management teams are the mortar of what keeps us together. For the chefs, it’s sort of a respite, because they actually get to cook.
What’s next for you?
Frank Sr.: Only the universe knows.
Frank Jr.: There may be a next; there may not be a next. But if there is, it will be done right. We’re serious about the quality so, if we do another thing, you can bet that quality is going be there and it’s going to be superb. If not, we’re not going to do it.
Frank Sr.: We’re very happy with what we’ve done and established so, it’s not that we need to do any more. We want to maintain what we’ve already done and keep that alive, well, and perfect. If my son wants to do more, God bless him, he can do more, but you can bet your life it will be done right.
Frankie Jr.: The bottom line is there ain’t no selling out for us.
Frank Sr.: There’s no backsliding or resting on one’s laurels. That doesn’t work. Every night the show must go on and every night the objective is a standing ovation. That’s what it is, and you have to work hard to achieve that, but that’s what you do.
Frankie Jr.: One thing my father has instilled in me that has left an indelible mark is, you’re only as good as your last meal. That being said, I think that defines the attention to detail that’s necessary for us to do what we do.
Frank Sr.: We care.
Rao’s in New York
455 E. 114th Street
New York, NY 10029
Rao’s in Las Vegas
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Rao’s in Hollywood
1006 Seward St.
Los Angeles, CA 90038