Daily Pampering: The art of food and exclusivity at Rao’s New York

Today’s Daily Pampering comes from one of our Seed.com writers, who found a little luxury – albeit in uncommon form – in a hidden New York gem…

When we walked into Rao’s New York, the record did not scratch to a stop as it does in popular metaphor. We would have welcomed such subtly. It was more akin to the entire record player crashing onto the floor in slow motion. We were out of place, and it was blatantly obvious. Here we were, dressed as though we had a small town prom to get to later in the evening. The rest of the room? Bombastic Italians, casually dressed. I saw a tracksuit or two, t-shirts everywhere, and nary a tie in sight.

“The web,” I nodded discouragingly to myself, “what a freaking liar.”

We had done research for our dinner, and the Internet made a point to instruct us to wear “our nicest clothes.” I had spent an hour that day looking for new cuff links specifically for this meal. Cuff Links, mind you, that no one would ever notice. But I thought what the hell, nice dinner date in New York, best Italian restaurant in the city, and the hardest reservation this side of El Bulli. I am wearing new cuff links, dammit.

Here I threw you in the deep end without properly explaining the context. Rao’s is allegedly the best Italian restaurant in New York. They have 10 tables, 1 dinner seating, and only open their doors Monday through Friday. To mitigate this extremely limited dinner availability, they use a “standing reservation” program with their regulars. Regulars come on the same night weekly, having done so for decades, so they essentially own their table for that specific night. Outside of this, they only take reservations for one or two tables each night, and those reservations go years in advance. They take under 300 new reservations per year, and even sold a reservation on eBay with a $20,000 “buy it now” price. If you call them, an Italian voice plainly instructs that they are no longer taking reservations. This is not a hard place to get into. It is an impossible place to get into.

Rao’s does not welcome you with open arms, provided they welcome you at all. We walked in with our aforementioned prom outfits on, and were immediately presented with a psychological gauntlet. The maitre d’ claimed we had no reservation. He walked into the back for a few minutes, and come back shaking his head. I nervously tugged on my jacket and my date fussed with her small silver clutch. We pulled up emails on our iPhone attempting to outsmart his gambit with hard evidence. This just exasperated the issue because he mistook the date of the message for the date of our reservation. Eventually, he smiled and pointed to a table that had been ready for us before we even walked in. They were just screwing with us.

Our meal felt earned at this point, and we were ready to order. Calm now, I took a slow cursory glance around the room. It appeared as though we had walked straight onto a Scorsese set. I could envision Pesci beating some guy to near death next to the bar while Ray Liotta nervously shuttered the front door. Aside from my imaginative wandering though, the restaurant felt fairly prosaic. I suppose that is the charm. The modest surroundings lend a feel of honesty to the experience that dressing it up would likely disprove. Like the fresh ingredients they use, Rao’s wastes no time on filler with garish aesthetics either.

There is no menu. The maitre d’ came up, sat down, and told us all about their food: the firmness of their fusilli, the freshness of the pomodoro, the thinness of the veal. Had I no restraint, I would have drooled an Arno river into my lap. It was dinner foreplay, and man this guy was a good kisser. The bad blood of our vetting had vanished, and he was extremely affable and gracious. Like a culinary consultant, he helped us design our meal without being even the slightest bit pushy.

Mozzarella was spoken about at length, as were peppers, mussels, and calamari. We settled on 3 antipasti, 2 pastas, a meat course, and 2 desserts. To start, we had some lightly breaded calamari, firm but yielding. We also had a plate of cooked red peppers and delicious fresh mozzarella with tomato and basil to round out our antipasti trio. For pastas, we had a penne vodka and fusilli pomodoro, with a side of meatballs that textured like ambrosia clouds sent from heaven. Lastly, the veal parm came out to thunderous applause, in my head. Rich cheeses smothered the veal just to the brink that it seemed the distinct flavors had reached some sort of bicameral agreement in which neither would overpower the other. Each dish passed the next like Ludwig Van’s slamming hands – intense, perfect, and to be appreciated for a long time.

I pondered if humans could explode, and then I ate more.

The meal was near perfect, easily a 9 out of 10. Dessert was a sliver of homemade New York cheesecake and a few scoops of black raspberry ice cream. So, is Rao’s all hype? Absolutely not. They fed us a meal that we will never forget. It is a shame we will probably not be able to go back for a very long time. I really wanted to try the seafood salad. Maybe they will take a 2015 reservation?

Luckily for those without marathon patience or old world connections, Rao’s operates a near perfect replica of the New York experience at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. They have 2 dining rooms and a full bar to accommodate foodie pilgrims. Also, unlike their Bronx East Harlem flagship, dinner is served nightly. Check out their menu on Zagat here.

Pricing at Rao’s New York is reasonable considering its massive reputation and exclusivity. Antipasti dishes range from $11 to around $20. Pasta Courses start a little under $20 and scale upwards of $30. A meat course will set you back $20 to $40. The meatballs, which defy the boundaries of goodness, cost a mere $11 for a pair. Dessert offerings cost $10 or less.

Justin Delaney is a Seed.com contributor. All the photos above are copyright Justin Delaney. Read his blog (and check out more of his top-notch photos) at Goboogo.