That night, Louie, his gun in his right pants pocket, took a seat next to a younger guy—30 years younger than Louie, it would turn out—a well-built six-footer wearing a black leather jacket. This guy—Nicky the Vest called him Al—had been to the bar a few times in the past six months. He was with a friend, running a tab. He had cash, but no wallet on him. Louie didn’t know him, he said. The guy was from out of town and, according to Louie, was definitely not showing the proper respect.
Years ago, Rao’s was known as a joint where mobsters went—when the actor Michael Nouri, who will star in the upcoming revival of Can-Can with Patti Lupone, played Mob boss Lucky Luciano, Frankie showed him Luciano’s table. Mob bosses Paul Castellano and John Gotti had dined at Rao’s over the years—“Somehow they got a table,” griped one regular—as had Tony Salerno, who used to run the neighborhood for the Genovese family. (Even he apparently had trouble getting a table. One story has it that Salerno kidnapped Rao’s chef and installed him at another restaurant to avoid the ordeal.) When he was a cop, half-Italian Bo Dietl had been listed as Mob-connected just for drinking at Rao’s.
Rao’s, with its dark wood and perpetual Christmas lights, is still one of those places where a wiseguy looks right. At Rao’s, a wiseguy can be a wiseguy; called by his nickname, kissed on the cheek, sitting on a stool, fat as a house. At least he can be taken for one. And how many venues—outside the movies—offer such quality showcasing? (Even the movies headed to Rao’s to nail the type. Martin Scorsese cast six Rao’s regulars in GoodFellas—including Johnny Roastbeef, who let Warner Bros. use his name in the film.) The real-life mobster, the scary one, might seem part of a time capsule—Mob movies are likely to be kitschy and comic these days—but Louie Lump Lump didn’t think so. He was old enough to have spotted Lucky Luciano at Rao’s. Rao’s was the place he wanted to go.
Of course, these days Rao’s is the place everyone likes to go—Billy Crystal, George Pataki, Rod Stewart, Dan Marino, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, to name a few—and very few can. There are just those eleven tables. Plus, Rao’s closes on weekends, doesn’t serve lunch, and has only one seating a night. Once, State Supreme Court Judge Edwin Torres, who wrote the book that became the movie Carlito’s Way, tried to bring the movie’s director, Brian De Palma, and its producer, Martin Bregman. Torres, who’d grown up in the neighborhood, was a Rao’s regular. Frankie said no. He almost always said no—his nickname is Frankie No. “Where am I going to put them?” Frankie asked Torres. (A well-known photographer got a table on his birthday, but he, at least, had the good sense to ask a year in advance.)
Frankie is, by most accounts, an accidental restaurateur. He loves acting—he’s a recurring character (an FBI agent) on The Sopranos—and has a movie-producing company with a friend from Rao’s. When an aunt died, he fell into the Rao’s business, which he enjoyed, though, honestly, even he didn’t quite understand the restaurant’s popularity—“I’m in awe of the phenomenon,” he’d tell regulars. It was not a happy situation. He had lots of friends he couldn’t accommodate. He was embarrassed to go to friends’ restaurants. Get treated nice, and then? He couldn’t invite them to his place. As he told one friend, if he ate out, it was Chinese.
Eventually, to deal with the crush, he’d come up with an idea. No reservations. Instead, he assigned people regular tables, once a week. Now and then they gave their tables back for Frankie to dispose of. Otherwise, the table was theirs, bring who they want. At what other restaurant did a person “own” a table, like a condo? From Frankie’s point of view, though, it was a lot less of a headache.
Ron Perelman, chairman of Revlon; Tommy Mottola, former head of Sony Music; and Bill Rollnick, former chairman of Mattel, got tables. “It’s my greatest asset,” said Rollnick, which was only half a joke. (On hearing that Sophia Loren wanted to come, Rollnick got to bring her.) For years, Dick Schaap, the late sportswriter, had a table. During his eulogy at Schaap’s funeral, Billy Crystal wondered, “Who gets his table at Rao’s?” (His wife got it.)
A table at Rao’s was a valuable thing. At an auction, one brought $20,000—not including food. But money was only one way to value a regular table at Rao’s. Rao’s was outside the chain of celebrity command. Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Al Pacino, Bette Midler, had been there, but they couldn’t get reservations on their own. William Friedkin sat at Sonny’s table. Jack Welch sat at the table of Bo Dietl, another ex-cop with movie connections—a movie was made of his life story, One Tough Cop. “I put together a Who’s Who,” Bo said of his table. Bo invited Donny Deutsch, Steve Witkoff, Ken Langone, captains of business who might not naturally have hung out with the street-smart Bo from Queens, now a private security specialist who dressed so expensively that he sometimes spelled his name Beau. But Bo controlled an interesting bit of New York real estate—Bo, in fact, said he’d had his table built specially to accommodate a couple more places. And this got to the heart of the Rao’s phenomenon.
Frankie distributed table privileges based not on financial heft or Q rating but, for the most part, on loyalty. He favored longtime customers, regular people. “Not powerhouses,” said Rollnick. “We’re Frankie’s people.” And so, unexpectedly, the gatekeepers to the exclusive realm weren’t the Robert De Niros of the world—he’s never had a regular table. (Even when Mia Farrow was researching a movie role by studying Frankie’s aunt, she came as a guest.) Often, table owners are former neighborhood people, regular guys, with local accents. So even if you’re one of the world’s biggest pop stars or you’ve just won the Super Bowl, to get into Rao’s it helps to know Ralphie from Queens who sells outdoor advertising or the guy from Jersey who sells latex for swimsuits, both of whom own tables. “Unknown, outer-borough people,” said Betsy McCaughey, who as Betsy McCaughey Ross served as Pataki’s first lieutenant governor and who’s been a guest at Rao’s a few times.
Sonny Grosso jokingly put his finger on the gatekeeper’s power: “I went to high school with Regis Philbin, and I always tell him, ‘I don’t care how much money you have, you can’t get into Rao’s without me.’ ” (Though, apparently, he tries. Michael Nouri, who sometimes uses Rollnick’s table, says, “Regis has called me. The poor bastard just can’t get in.” )
Probably the oddest part of the Rao’s experience is that, despite the dense packing of celebrities, it’s not cool in a contemporary sense. The place is a throwback. It doesn’t even look like it belongs on the contemporary restaurant scene. David Rockwell didn’t have a hand in the design. After a fire about half a dozen years ago, Rao’s hired a set designer to help re-create its Christmas-in-the-boroughs look. The walls are dark wood, the ceilings dark tin, and Christmas trim hangs year-round. The place doesn’t have a coat room—there’s a rack near the men’s room not far from a jukebox, most of whose songs date from 30 or more years ago. Rao’s has published a successful cookbook, marketed a delicious pasta sauce, but there’s no star chef.
People don’t idle their limos outside of Rao’s for adventurous Italian cuisine. It’s Italian home cooking. “This is just like the food my mother used to make,” Pacino told his host on his first visit.
Night after night, Rao’s offers a Sunday Italian dinner, blue-collar, familiar, approachable (once you’re in), and for the downtown set, the moviegoing class, the Wall Street gang, the Hollywood crowd, it’s exotic, fun, slightly embarrassing, and, what with some of those torpedo-shaped guys at the bar, titillating, too. (“Frankie don’t want to put down the B.S. about what people find interesting, and he don’t want to promote it either” was how one regular put it.) At Rao’s, men kiss each other hello, Italian-style, and call each other by those nicknames. The atmosphere isn’t heady or rarefied. Introductions get made—Michael Amante met the record exec who’d sign him to a CD deal at Rao’s. Still, you don’t imagine intellectual chat. Every now and then deals get brokered—Bo swears that he and Stevie Witkoff put together a deal to buy the Woolworth building at his table—but the real angle “is showing a potential partner who could not get in an entrez-vous,” as Bo put it.
Unusually, what people experience at Rao’s, with its fifties décor, its feudal loyalties, with Frankie No, the restaurateur-as-Godfather, is that it’s fun. They say that as if they’re unaccustomed to fun, at least the Rao’s strain, which may be true. Stars don’t control the room. Storytellers do, especially those with a connection to the neighborhood or the street. Bo, Glock on his waist, tells his table about catching a nun’s rapist. Or Sonny, .38 on his waist, tells his table about connected Joe Rao, Vinnie’s brother, attending his father’s funeral with two “tree trunks.” He had them bend at the casket.
Then at some point in the evening, Frankie, who started as a singer and now makes a pretty good living as an actor, punches up his favorites on the jukebox. Frankie is charming—people love him. He’s almost always the best-dressed guy in the room: beautiful suit, cuff links, pocket spot. As the music starts, he weaves figure eights around the room’s few tables with their white tablecloths. His voice is airier now, his voice box damaged. But he sings with feeling, shouting out his favorite lines in his few favorite songs. When Bill Clinton visited Rao’s—he went with Jon Corzine, borrowing Dick Schaap’s widow’s table—Frankie directed “My Way” to him. “Mistakes, I’ve made a few,” Frankie sang to the former president, who buried his face on the table, playing along.
The night that Louie Lump Lump Barone sat drinking at the end of the bar, a couple of guests got up to sing, too. Michael Amante, a powerful tenor who sang to Sophia Loren at Rao’s (she kissed him “on the lips,” Amante recalled), sang Â“O Sole Mio.” The crowd cheered. Then Rena Strober stood up. She’s 27, attractive, and had recently sung in Les Miz. She sang Â“Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Which is when, according to Louie’s story, the trouble started. Next to him sat that guy wearing a dark leather jacket. Albert Circelli had been to the bar at Rao’s a few times in the past half-dozen months. Al, as he was called, was 37. He was from Yonkers, where organized crime was controlled by the Luccheses, though crime there could be unorganized as well. (A few years ago, some of Al’s contemporaries, sons of local Mafiosi, went wild, robbing and murdering, when they weren’t hanging out at the local mall. Anthony DiSimone, whose father reputedly ran a Lucchese crew, murdered a kid outside a Yonkers bar. Apparently he felt protected by family connections.)