Blowing the Best Invite of My Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Opportunities not taken? Opportunities wasted.
By Estelle Erasmus
I read with great sadness that earlier this year Frank Pellegrino Sr., the famous owner of the New York City landmark restaurant Rao’s, passed away from lung cancer at age 72.
I worked with Frank — Frankie to his friends — back in 1997, when we both consulted on a movie project at Hachette Filipacchi, a few months before I was installed as the editorial director of Hachette’s fitness magazine Body by Jake. I had met Hachette’s then CEO, David Pecker, at a press event, when I was editor-in-chief of Woman’s Own.
At a memorable lunch at Le Bernardin, where we both realized we shared the same September birthday, Pecker, flush off the success of the cult fashion documentary Unzipped with Isaac Mizrahi, said he was looking for another movie project for Hachette to invest in, and he hired me as a consultant. Also on the team was Frank Pellegrino Sr., an actor (most notably in Goodfellas), singer and “owner of a popular restaurant.”
On first meeting, Frank made an impact. His suits were beautifully cut, and he wore ties, a signet ring, gold turtle cuff links — he considered the turtle his avatar — and a gold bracelet. He vibed power, with his sonorous voice and macho, but respectful and confident, presence.
And I liked how Frank cut to the chase in meetings. When a guy from the Hamptons made a presentation to us about his hot property, Frank didn’t mince words. He asked him if he owned the rights, and when the guy dithered and made a pitch for money, he dismissed him. I appreciated his “tough but fair” ways.
He proudly showed me the advance copy of his book, which was about to be published by Random House: Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking. He loved the cover and the intro from Nicholas Pileggi.
One day, Frank and I both arrived early at the office. “We’re too early. Want to take a walk across town?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, happy for the chance to get to know him better. We headed to a shop on Madison Avenue, where he picked up a gorgeous pair of custom-made leather shoes. The owner fawned over him like he was royalty.
On our walk back, Frank was in a genial mood.
“Sweetheart, do you have a boyfriend?”
“I date a musician who lives in Colorado.”
“Hey, you’re a good kid. Why don’t you come to my restaurant, Rao’s, one night as my guest?”
“Thanks. That’s so nice of you.”
“It’s a fun joint. We eat Italian food and sing along to the jukebox till 3 in the morning.”
“Sounds great. Where is it located?”
“In Harlem. On 114th Street. You’ve got an open invitation. Come anytime. Just let me know.”
The media had given Frank the moniker “Frankie NO” because he refused celebrities and politicians begging for admittance.
That night I asked a couple of friends if they would ever go to a restaurant in Harlem.
“Are you kidding, Estelle? Do you know about all the murders up there?” my best friend said. Another friend reminded me of the crack cocaine epidemic that had besieged Harlem in the 1990s. This was just around the time that Harlem’s gentrification was beginning, before Bill Clinton set up shop there, before actors bought property in the vicinity, before Google and before Uber.
“Forget about getting a cab to bring you back home,” my friend said. “Do you really want to walk around those streets early in the morning searching for one?”
No. No, I didn’t.
I thought that my high-flying lifestyle — press trips to Europe, Hawaii, Anguilla; an invite to the opening of the Luxor Las Vegas Hotel; smoking “flavored tobacco” in a trendy hookah bar in Amsterdam — made me worldly. But maybe I was also a bit naive. I loved collecting experiences, but decided I couldn’t risk my personal safety for just one more.
The next time I saw Frank, I thanked him for the invite. “When do you want to come?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m not comfortable traveling that far uptown,” I admitted. “Sorry to hear that,” he said, nonplussed. If only I’d had a crystal ball, to show me what I missed because of my fear. I now realize that chivalrous Frank would have sent me home in a car, instead of letting me walk the streets searching for a cab.
Hachette never found another movie to invest in, and after Body by Jake closed its last issue a year later, I started a business launching publications. Eventually, I lost touch with Frank. He didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t use email. I lost his private number at his home in Long Island when I changed over computers.
What l learned later about Rao’s was, as Zagat says, it “practically takes an act of Congress” to score a table.
I found out that the only way to score an invite is to know somebody who has a table — and there are only 10 tables. Since 1977, when Mimi Sheraton gave it three stars in the New York Times, the tables, much like time shares or season tickets, have been assigned to families or people. If they can’t come, they gift their “reservation” to family or friends, auction it for a charity event or, less likely, turn it back to the house — meaning Frank.
The “joint,” as Frank liked to call it, is not open on weekends; people just show up on their designated night.
Regulars who come to the restaurant and dine on plates of supersize meatballs, lemon chicken, eggplant Parmesan and seafood salad — served family style; there are no menus — include Martin Scorsese (who cast Pellegrino in Goodfellas), Leo DiCaprio, Keith Richards and Gloria Estefan. Christmas decor perpetually festoons the room, and there are black-and-white football photos and Frank Sinatra memorabilia on the walls.
The media had given Frank the moniker “Frankie NO” because he refused celebrities and politicians begging for admittance, including Warren Buffett, who eventually scored an invite, and Justin Bieber, who did not.
My husband and I have since been invited to soirees where silent auction items invariably included dinner for 10 at Rao’s. We’ve bid on it, but always end up losing. I don’t have many regrets, but I do regret that I missed the opportunity to dine at Rao’s — the hottest spot in NYC — back when I had the open invitation.
Though Frank is gone, Rao’s remains, a testament to Old New York. I still hope to get there one day, but I’ll never get the chance to join its former proprietor in a song along with the raucous crowd: “My Girl” was said to be his personal favorite.
Rest in peace, Frank. As one of your regulars might have said, “I coulda been a contender.”
- Estelle Erasmus, OZY Author Contact Estelle Erasmus