Welcome to The Gatekeepers, a monthly feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tough-to-get tables.
Rao’s in New York City can be one tough reservation to nab. A reservation for one of the 10 tables there has been known to go for $5,000 on eBay. Not so in Vegas, where Rao’s at Caesars Palace gives fans easier access. Frank Pellegrino Jr. has seen it all in both restaurants. The fourth-generation scion of the family that founded and still owns the original in East Harlem has run Rao’s at Caesars Palace since 2006. In May, his first cookbook, Rao’s on the Grill, came out with photos he took and tips on summer entertaining on the grill. Here, talks about some of the shenanigans people have gone through to get a tough reservation.
So, what's the busiest time right now?
Dinner! Our stellar performers like Celine Dion, Rod Stewart and Elton John keep packing them in.
As one of the hottest restaurants in Las Vegas, you've surely been offered gifts or cash in exchange for reservations or a table. What have people tried?
People have tried everything, particularly for our New York City restaurant, and you would be surprised at the lengths they are willing to go to get a table. When that does happen, I politely decline any gift and just say, “Thank you so much. If I receive a cancellation I will call you.” No favors or gifts required.
Tell us about your favorite customers.
My favorite guests are those who enjoy great food, great hospitality, an old-school atmosphere, and those who partake in the festivities of the evening.
How about celebrities?
That's the beauty of Rao's. You never know what may happen or who will be there. One evening recently in New York City, Sting and Billy Joel were both at the restaurant, at different tables, and by the end of the evening they were singing “My Girl” with everyone in the dining room.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables to give?
So, what's the strangest request that you've accommodated at Rao’s?
Tofu with our lemon chicken marinade, and it was delicious!
Do you ever get any requests for vegetarian dishes here at Rao’s? How do you accommodate them?
Yes, as you can see by the above answer. Fortunately, our food and recipes utilize various ingredients from Mother Earth, so it's really never an issue.
What's the most popular dish right now?
Meatballs, beet salad and pasta.
So, when you're not at Rao’s, where are you eating these days?
Usually at home. We are forever testing and exploring new ideas for new projects and additions to our menus. I eat out most when I am traveling.
What's the must-order dish at Rao’s?
In my opinion, everything! But the one thing you must have is our Chocolate Dream Cake!
Were there any reviews that led to significant bump in service, or a change to the type of clientele?
Yes, when Anne Burrell asked me to prepare one of our signature dishes — Chicken Scarpariello — on her show, The Best Thing I Ever Ate. After the episode ran, it became a must-have for first-time guests.
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to get the job done?
The appreciation of my guests!
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Frank Pellegrino Jr. [Photo: Rao's]