The legendary Italian restaurant Rao’s is known for its warm, clubby feel, but lately there’s a chill in the dining room — and it’s not the air conditioning.
Regulars say that since Frank Pellegrino Sr. filed a lawsuit against his longtime partner Ron Straci on July 15, the tension in the tiny dining room has been palpable.
“Frankie usually sits in the first chair by the bar, and Ron stands on the far wall, but now, when one shows up, the other leaves,” says one regular, who asked to remain anonymous, lest he lose his table at the restaurant.
Says another regular: “The other night, Ron walked in, and Frankie didn’t even look at him. Then Frankie left.’’
And a third adds that he also witnessed the atypical iciness this week.
Both Pellegrino and Straci work on the floor of the restaurant, greeting diners at the bar as they arrive, and they both handle special reservation requests, so the lack of communication can get sticky. It can also be problematic for the extremely loyal and long-term staff, like bartender Nicky the Vest.
Family togetherness has always been one of the hallmarks of the Harlem hot spot. And Straci says the suit, which also names his wife Sharon as a defendant, was a complete surprise to him.
“I didn’t know this was coming,’’ Straci tells The Post. “We are partners in the restaurant, which my grandfather opened in 1896.” (Straci’s uncle Vincent was married to Pellegrino’s aunt Anna.)
The suit alleges that Sharon didn’t act in the best interest of shareholders in Rao’s Specialty Foods, the company that sells the restaurant’s pasta, sauces and olive oil.
Pellegrino owns 37.5 percent of the business, and, in the suit, says that Sharon was running it as a “personal fiefdom” and refusing to involve shareholders in major decisions. Pellegrino also claims she threatened to start a competitive company.
“Sharon has been running the company for over 20 years, and this [suit] was cruel and full of untrue allegations,” says Straci.
While the staff is known for their loyalty to both owners, Frankie has engendered a particular soft spot among some by being paternal and supportive.
“Whenever anyone has a problem, Frankie is there for him,” says private investigator Bo Dietl, who has had a table for years. “When [Nicky the Vest] got into a car accident and broke his back, Frankie completely took care of him.”
Straci, who started out decades ago as a waiter — Pellegrino began as a bartender — says the issues might be close to being resolved.
He claims they have interviewed prospective buyers for the food company, and that “the suit itself is technically resolved pending further discussions. We are working on it.”
For his part, Pellegrino will only offer “no comment.”
But even once the legal loose ends are all tied up, will the boiling resentments simmer down?
“I hope it will work out. We try to keep ourselves above the fray and not let it affect people who work for us,” says Straci. “Sometimes he is on one side [of the room] and I am on the other.
“We talk to each other as business partners and we try not to let our personal feelings enter into it.”
As regular Phil Suarez puts it, family is one thing, but “business is business.”
(Some Background: Rao's is one of the more famous restaurants in NYC. It is in Old Italian Harlem and was founded by gangsters in fact. The Rao's were in the rackets starting out with Dutch Schultz and eventually joining up with the Lucchese family. He was famously standing on the stoop when Mad Dog Coll drove by and sprayed the crowd killing a five year old kid. There is nothing new under the sun. Drive bys. Kids getting killed. The Mad Dog was after Joey Rao and missed.
The restaurant is famous for having a limited number of tables with each one reserved for a day of the week. The mook who has the reservation determines who can eat there. If they called or didn't show up then Frankie picked who got to eat. They are closed on weekends. It was a big status thing in the 1970's and 1980's. You had to know somebody and they were happy to turn away big shots who didn't have a reservation. There was a murder there when Louie Lump Lump shot a made guy over an argument over a dame one Christmas week in 2003 and that sort of a damper on the romance of dining there. At least for a lot of people. Still gets a good business and you see their sauce all over New York. I was there once and it was no big deal. There are literally hundreds of places that are better. Especially Parkside in Queens which is just as mobbed up and with food that is 1000 times better.)