Little Italy From City to Strip: Rao’s Italian Brunch With Frank Pellegrino Jr.

At Vegas Uncork'd, we managed to steal a few moments with the iconic brand’s first son, who reflected on the reasons behind why tables at Rao’s are so coveted.

Frank Pellegrino Jr.

Given the original Rao’s is over a century old in New York City and the Caesars Palace outpost just turned 10, the brand has become an American institution. You can even buy their famed pasta sauce across the country at most grocers. But there is always something about walking through the doors of Rao’s. And while the New York original may be the hardest reservation in the world, fortunately the famous meatballs are a bit more accessible here. Rather than run through what transpired at this weekend’s epic brunch at Vegas Uncork’d (read some of the highlights here), we managed to steal a few moments with the iconic brand’s first son, Frankie Pellegrino Jr., and reflect on the reasons behind why tables at Rao’s are so coveted.

What is the Rao’s secret sauce?

One of the things I think we’re most proud of is that our staple dishes, and recipes that we use in the restaurant in New York, are well over a century old. That being said, it’s our mission to preserve the integrity of those dishes and share it with all of the wonderful people who come and join us, our guests.

What we do is utilize the finest ingredients possible, and that has provided us the opportunity to always allow our cuisine to evolve. You’ll find Chef Dino every day in New York, going out and sourcing the best ingredients possible, which is part of our heritage. Our forefathers and grandmothers spent the whole day shopping just to prepare the meal for that evening or Sunday.

Your sauce has actually become part of Americana.

Our pasta sauce is now a quarter of a century old. It is, without question, the finest sauce that you can buy in a jar. It’s the healthiest sauce. There’s no sugar. We use the finest tomatoes grown in the Campania region of Southern Italy and San Marzano region. The finest olive oil, fresh onions, garlic, etc. Seasonings. Again, it’s carrying on more than a century of preparation. Salt in the water is a key, critical component of making delicious-tasting pasta. You can find that sauce virtually in every single supermarket throughout the country. When it was first created by my dad, I characterized it, and still do to this day, as love in a jar. It was made and delivered with passion. It’s that passion and integrity of not only the ingredients, but our hearts and souls that are put into our cuisine, that I believe really separates us from everyone else.

So you can bring Rao’s home, but what goes down at the Pellegrino family home?

I cook everything. At home, we’ll do a lot of Sunday gravy on weekends. Spending a good portion of my time out here in the Southwest, you will be finding a lot of barbecuing that goes on. That barbecuing is comprised mostly of Rao’s dishes that have been transformed. The recipes have been transformed so that you can do them on the grill with relative ease and great results. We even have a grilling cookbook that came out a few years back that’s just terrific.

Again, when you come to my house, whether it’s Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday or Wednesday, the refrigerator door’s always open and the coffee’s always brewing. There’s some wine hanging around, too. It’s a coming together of friends and family. That’s what Rao’s, and all of our restaurants, are about, particularly in New York. Certainly in New York and Los Angeles and here in Las Vegas, too. I would have to say that at Rao’s in Caesars Palace, a good 20 percent of our guests are local people, which I think says a lot about the hospitality that we strive to deliver.

At the end of the day, the restaurant belongs to our guests. It’s not ours. It’s a privilege and honor for us to prepare our food for these incredible people who grace us with their presence on a regular basis.

What’s next?

That’s a great question. When people ask us to look into the crystal ball, we don’t look into a crystal ball. We go with the flow. You’d be surprised that opportunities manifest themselves, unplanned. It’s a great deal of spontaneity, so to speak. Whatever captures our passion is what we’ll pursue. In terms of restaurants, three is more than enough for our team to handle. Perhaps expanding that would dilute the heart and soul of what we aim to achieve. It depends on circumstances, environments and appeal.