ELV note: Rao’s hasn’t changed its menu since Ronald Reagan was President. So why is it “Essential?” Because, 1) the iconic, original one in NYC is impossible to get into; 2) the food is identical at both; 3) that food is about as righteous a rendition of Italian-American food as you’ll find in these here United States; and finally, because 4) ELV (the man, the myth, the deplore-r of all things low-class and Italian…as in “yo-Rocky!” Jersey Shore, low-class-Italian) has never had a bad meal or a bad bite in the joint. (And we’ve eaten here at least a dozen times since it opened.) That’s why the review below — and Top 50 status — still stands.
“Red and dead” describes the vast majority of Italian-American restaurants with their cookie-cutter menus and uninspired cooking, but few Americans seem to demand or expect much from their chicken Marsala or pasta Bolognese.
Lucky for the rest of us, Rao’s is the exception to all this mendacious mediocrity. All you have to do is stroll in off the casino floor, any night of the week, to get pitch-perfect renditions of goombah food done right. The marinara sauce tastes like it was made that day (because it was), the linguine con vongole is loaded with big briny shellfish, and the toothsome pasta fagioli zuppa is teeming with tubetti pasta and meaty cannellini beans.
Uncle Vincent’s Famous Lemon Chicken may be the recipe that put Rao’s on the map, but I’m more partial to the chicken Scarpariello—big chunks of bone-in meat tossed with hot and sweet sausage. This food may be as old as the hills, but at Rao’s you feel like you’re eating it for the first time.
Max Jacobson says: “[T]he kitchen staff still cooks the family specialties with confidence, offering amazing meatballs (softballs of veal, beef,and pork); lemon chicken, blackened and redolent of garlic, olive oil and lemon juice; and my favorite dish in this establishment, clams Oreganate (seasoned stuffed clams served in their shells. This isn’t innovative stuff, just hearty peasant fare from southern Italy, where everyone eats family-style.
Favorite Dishes: Meatballs; Chicken Scarpariello; Linguine With Clams; Pasta Fagioli Soup; Fusilli With Sausage And Cabbage; Shells With Ricotta Sauce; Clams Oreganate; Veal Chop With Hot And Sweet Peppers; Braised Lamb Shank; Osso Buco; Cheesecake.