'Soprano' Star Scores A Hit With Rao's

The Early Show: Frank Pellegrino cooks Shrimp Fra Diavolo CBS/The Early Show

Rao's, the 106-year-old restaurant with a mere ten tables tucked in a corner of East Harlem in what was once a legendary New York Italian neighborhood, is one of the most sought-after restaurants in Manhattan.

Tables are booked months in advance by regulars who enjoy the simple Italian cooking from traditional recipes, many as old as Rao's itself.

For those of who may never eat at Rao's, co-owner Frank Pellegrino shows The Early Show how to make one of the restaurant's most popular dishes, as well as one of his personal favorites, Shrimp Fra Diavolo.

Pellegrino, an actor who plays FBI agent Frank Cubitosi on the HBO hit "The Sopranos," says he loves the kick that the sauce has. He says it is simple to make and is versatile since it can be served with or without pasta.

The following is the recipe:

Shrimp Fra Diavolo
Serves 4

Ingredients
2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and de-veined, butterflied, tails removed, patted dry
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fine-quality olive oil
6 small garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Dried red-pepper flakes to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
4 cups hand-crushed, canned imported San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes
8 fresh basil leaves, torn
1 lb. linguine (optional)

Method:
  1. Dredge shrimp in flour, patting to make sure that all sides are well coated.

  2. Heat oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, but not smoking, add shrimp and saute for 2 minutes. Stir in garlic and saute for an additional minute or until shrimp are just beginning to brown. (Do not crowd pan; prepare shrimp in batches, if necessary.) Remove from heat and drain off all excess oil. Set shrimp aside and keep warm.

  3. Return pan and garlic to medium-high heat. Stir in wine, oregano, pepper flakes, and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for 3 minutes.

  4. Stir in tomatoes and cook for 15 minutes or until sauce has thickened slightly. Stir in basil and shrimp and cook for 3 minutes, remove garlic cloves.

  5. Serve with or without linguine pasta (optional)

Other featured dishes include:
Seafood Salad or Frutti di Mare
Rao's Famous Lemon Chicken or Pollo al Limone

Brief History Of Rao's:
  • Rao Family arrives in New York from Southern town of Pollo, near Naples, in 1880s and settles among a thriving Italian immigrant community in East Harlem

  • In 1896 son Charles buys a small saloon at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue in upper Manhattan, naming it Rao's

  • Charles Rao dies in 1909, and his brother Joseph takes over until his death in 1930. By then, Charlie's sons Louis and Vincent Rao become the operating owners, keeping it open during prohibition.

  • Louis runs the place until his death in 1958; then his brother Vincent takes over, turning Rao's from a local bar - a place neighborhood people used to call "the Hole" because it is four steps down from the street - into a restaurant where customers begin to return even after they moved out of the neighborhood.

  • By 1970, the neighborhood that had long resisted change finally succumbs. The first Rao's regulars return primarily for Vincent's steak and chops.

  • By 1974, business becomes so brisk that Vincent's wife, Anna Pellegrino Rao, is enlisted. She helps to improve all the traditional Italian dishes, transforming Rao's into a favorite for a small army of steady customers.

  • In the late '60s and early '70s, when the East Harlem neighborhood begins its decline, Rao's refuses to change, expand or move downtown as many customers suggest. As a result, it becomes sort of a time-capsule restaurant that allows its customers to go back in time and experience a neighborhood restaurant as it was...back then.

  • In 1977, New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton writes a glowing three-star review of the restaurant and it becomes so hard to get a table --Zagat's Survey says, even the Pope would find it tough.

  • Frank Pellegrino (nephew of Anna Pellegrino Rao) and Ron Straci (nephew of Vincent Rao) inherit Rao's Restaurant after the deaths of Anna and Vincent in 1994.

  • Rao's is probable the only certifiable condominium restaurant in the world because the tables are essentially owned by the customers, as a result of the restaurant's unique concept of customer "table rights." The regular customers who had been occupying the same tables for years continue to occupy them. In fact, to this day no matter how many movie stars, corporate moguls, politicians, and sport figures have found their way to the restaurant's scarce tables, the original customers take up most of the space.

  • Rao's regulars know each other so well they have established a market in Rao's tables -- trading them like baseball cards.

About Frank Pellegrino:

Pellegrino began working at Rao's with his Uncle Vincent and Aunt Anna in 1973. After their deaths in 1994, he and cousin Ron Straci become co-owners. In his other career, as actor and singer, Pellegrino has appeared in Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," and has had parts in the television series "New York Undercover," and "The Sopranos."

Pellegrino has also written "Rao's Cookbook: Over 100 years of Italian Home Cooking" (1998), as well as produced a CD, "An Evening at Rao's: Songs from an Italian Restaurant" (1998), containing music from the restaurant's jukebox, evoking the spirit of Rao's and the old neighborhood (the compilation includes Frank himself singing "The Ham"). At times, the restaurateur has been known to serenade or sing along with customers.
  • Tatiana Morales

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