Rao’s was my second home in Las Vegas. I spent more time in that dining room than I did in any other on the Strip. Whenever the restaurant’s patriarch and owner Frank Pellegrino Sr. was in town, I knew I would find him perched at the corner of the bar nearest the foyer. Pellegrino passed away in New York on Tuesday, January 31, 2017.
I wish I could remember the first time I met “Senior” (as he was called to differentiate when both he and his son, Frank Pellegrino Jr. were in the building), but I definitely know that I’d heard of him long before that. I imagined he’d be an intimidating, no-nonsense guy (purely based on his acting roles in Goodfellas and The Sopranos); the kind of guy who earns the nickname “Frankie No” because “No” is his default answer to anyone who requests a table at Rao’s New York. And he was definitely that guy. But he was also the epitome of warmth and hospitality for which the legendary 10-seat restaurant in Harlem is known, and that permeates through the two outposts in Las Vegas and Hollywood.
Always in a dapper suit and with a smile on his face, in between holding court he would welcome guests like they were all old friends. He’d greet me with a kiss and ask, “How ya doin’, honey?” before offering me a drink. If you were lucky, you were treated to a serenade. More often than not, if you didn’t walk in knowing Senior, you did when you left.
When I worked with Frank Jr. on his first cookbook, we took a trip to the Hamptons to test recipes, and I got to see Senior in a more casual setting. Senior taught me the patience required to make pizza dough from scratch in a test kitchen in their garage; he played poker with my sister and a few other Pellegrinos in the breakfast nook; I can still hear their raucous laughs echoing through the kitchen as he regaled them with stories. That’s what Senior did: He made those around him feel welcome and loved, no matter if it had been years since you last crossed paths, or you had just seen him the night before.
Until our paths cross again, Frank Sr.—thanks for the memories and the meatballs.
A February 1 statement from Rao’s Restaurants representatives:
“Rao’s iconic co-owner, Frank Pellegrino Sr. passed away on January 31st in the presence of his family and loved ones. He was 72 years old. While the entire Rao’s family mourns his loss, they also celebrate his life, and know he’d be adamant that the show must go on.
Presiding over a hallowed New York establishment elegantly entrenched in a bygone era of Packards and Parodis, Frank Pellegrino was an impeccable curator of the City’s gritty, glorious past. It was under Pellegrino’s inspired stewardship that Rao’s became the City’s most coveted dining destination, a place where the A-list and the hoi polio found common cause in food, song and unbridled revelry.
Rao’s counter-intuitive quirks were pure Pellegrino, the place is perpetually festooned in Christmas decorations and is closed on weekends. The interminable waiting list, the celebrity sightings and mouthwatering fare were an experience that spawned faithful satellite locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles as well as a thriving food company. Pellegrino was the last of the great hosts (here we speak of Toots Schor and Elaine Kaufman), his exquisite style and effortless elan brought the room to life, his voice, especially when leading the raucous throngs through a chorus of “My Girl”, could bring down the house.
The only aspect of Frank Pellegrino that exceeded his stentorian voice was his heart; he worked tirelessly on behalf of Mount Carmel Holy Rosary School and The Ronald McDonald House, and donated countless tables that were auctioned off for staggering sums that benefitted myriad causes. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to either Mount Carmel Holy Rosary School or The Ronald McDonald House.
Information regarding a memorial service will be made available via Rao’s Facebook page as soon as the details have been finalized.”