Macaroni, Gravy and Hardwood Floors
By Jeff Vandam
NY Times, January 2, 2005
There are bigger, fancier and gaudier tables in other parts of town. There are more expensive tables, even ones with plasma-screen televisions built into them. But no table is harder to get than a table at Rao's in East Harlem, the most venerable fortress of pasta and gravy in all New York. If you're lucky, you may someday get a seat at the bar.
It has been this way for decades at the corner of East 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, an avenue fabled for the mobsters who once haunted its six-block stretch. Yet in a few months' time, perhaps you, too, can have a table at Rao's.
Yes, there's a catch: you'll have to provide your own. Another catch: you won't technically be able to sit in the restaurant. But starting this spring, what you can do is rent a fully appointed luxury apartment just a few stories up.
Twenty-two apartments are under construction above the restaurant, its brilliant red facade overtaken by an exoskeleton of scaffolding. A sign urges passers-by to rent a place there and "Live Above a Legend."
The building, once home to the ancestors of Frank Pellegrino and Ron Straci, Rao's co-owners, is called Rao's City Views, and the units in its seven stories will offer marble bathrooms, granite kitchens and perhaps the aroma of sauce and peppers simmering downstairs.
"Thirty years ago, I said to my uncle, 'You boarded up the buildings; let's do something,' " said Mr. Straci, who is managing the apartment project. But at that time, rents on Pleasant Avenue, once a bustling Little Italy in its own right, were too low, and nothing happened.
These days, newcomers are charging up the No. 6 line and into East Harlem, buying up apartments and opening stores. "On every block, something is being renovated or rebuilt," Mr. Straci said. So two years ago, he began his dream project. A model apartment will be ready this month.
As for the restaurant, whose reputation was burnished further after a small-time mobster fatally shot a customer last December, it is not being altered in any way.
There have been some close calls, though. At one point, one of Mr. Straci's engineers requested permission to install a support beam in the middle of the dining room. That request was not granted.
The restaurant's regulars, with whom Mr. Straci chats nightly, have begun asking questions, but they aren't angry or upset - they want to know how big the apartments are and how much they will cost. (One- and two-bedrooms are $1,800 and up.)
Some people have shown interest in renting, which would provide them with the ultimate in convenience - wolfing down some tasty cavatelli or rigatoni, and then going straight upstairs to bed.