Rao’s in East Harlem is so much more than an Italian restaurant—and understanding that is key to appreciating what is so special about the Rao’s Benefit on behalf of students at the Partnership’s Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School. If you walk down the steps at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue, you feel it the minute you enter the small, 125-year-old basement eatery. The walls are covered with pictures, and the patrons interact like the old friends they often are. Rao’s embodies what it means to be a community.
Much has been written in the last few decades about community—how it creates value for its members, and what happens when members lose their ability to bond within a community or bridge to others. To explore these ideas, you could read social capital theorists like Robert Putnam or Timothy P. Carney—or you could just watch what happens on Pleasant Avenue in the spring, when the power of the Rao’s community aims itself joyfully down the street at Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary.
Michael Yorio and Anthony Belli understand that power in a way few could; they grew up in the blocks nearby during the 1960s. Like almost everyone in the neighborhood, they came from working class Italian families, and they attended Holy Rosary. They tended to scoot past Rao’s, then mostly a steak place, to get hot dogs from a street vendor and resume playing “any form of baseball—stick ball, punch ball, stoop ball.”
Despite their families’ humble circumstances, there were crucial dimensions to their upbringing that many now idealize: “everybody knew everybody. You were part of everybody’s family there; you grew up with everybody’s family,” Michael says. “That half a block from the church to First Avenue was my whole world, and I thought the whole world was Italian.”
In addition to this community-wide sense of belonging, the two of them had Holy Rosary School. Mt. Carmel School was just a few blocks away. As Susan Paolercio of Rao’s (and a Mt. Carmel alum) explains: “Everybody in the neighborhood went to one school or the other.”
The schools—merged into one in 1975—reinforced the strong sense of community and anchored students in a set of principles. Anthony explains that he was “far from a model student—probably your worst kid in every class—but the thing I took away even now in business was the discipline, the structure, and the foundation in religion.”
Anthony also shares another lesson that has stuck with him, from a lay teacher named Jean Lertique. “one night she saw me hanging out on the curb, by myself bouncing a ball, when she was on her way to the bus. I remember her sitting down next to me, and telling me, ‘Anthony, you have a lot of potential; don’t let anybody tell you any different.’” He explains that it didn’t have an impact in the moment—“I didn’t go to school the next day”—but now an author with a successful career in sales, Anthony finds her example of encouragement still stays with him.
Even with the Catholic parishes and schools to anchor it, their redlined neighborhood was declining in the Sixties, a set of challenges that triggered riots in East Harlem and was exacerbated by them. For the most part, Italians moved out. But as they did, that small restaurant on the corner, Rao’s, became a way for former residents to stay connected—and at the center of it was one man.
Frank Pelligrino, Sr., grew up in the neighborhood too. He left it to pursue a career as a singer, but when his aunt and uncle who ran the restaurant asked for his help in the summer of 1972 as business was picking up, he came back for a couple of weeks and stayed working at the restaurant until his death in 2017.
“When you were talking to Frank, you felt like you were the only person in the room. He focused; not many people do that,” Susan explains. And “there was always a hug, a greeting at the door.” His wife Josephine, reminiscing with Susan one afternoon this spring as pandemic restrictions begin to lift, laughs. “He would have gotten COVID ten times over,” she says, because he couldn’t resist hugging everyone as if they were family. It’s a practice that lives on; Susan and Josephine greet the restaurant’s mail carrier as if he is a long-lost friend. “Oh, Manny? We love Manny,” they explain.
Frank made the patrons at the restaurant’s ten tables feel like they were all part of the same celebration. “There would be people at the bar, music playing, him singing, everyone at the tables getting up and dancing,” Josephine explains. She also calls herself “the luckiest woman in the world” as his wife.
Frank didn’t just have fun with guests in the 1970s; he noticed that many came in patterns. Susan shares that he saw “the same people coming here on Monday night, Tuesday night…he recognized those people were coming here at certain times, and those people got tables; there wasn’t any money exchanged, there wasn’t any leases, nobody owns—but he recognized the place was getting busy, and if he recognized that Jimmy was coming on Friday night, he’d say, ‘how’d you like the third Friday?’—and that’s how the regulars started.
“And that’s the community. So the people who came on Monday night knew each other; they went out, they were friends, they went to their kids’ weddings; that’s the kind of community we have.”
While articles about Frank in the New York Times and Vanity Fair may emphasize the caliber of aspiring diner he denied a table to, we at the Partnership have a unique appreciation of the community he cultivated. “A lot of the neighborhood people come to Rao’s,” Susan shares, and that’s where the school comes in. “So this neighborhood and the school are a big part of their lives. And we have a tremendous affinity for the neighborhood.” It was Frank’s idea for Rao’s to begin a benefit for the sake of students at the school, some of whose parents work at the restaurant.
“They are beautiful children,” Susan explains, “and we are blessed to support them,” although she and Josephine have a laugh over how, in the early days of the benefit, the student’s performances didn’t exactly rival Frank’s treatment of “My Girl,” his favorite song on the jukebox at Rao’s. But one year he nudged Susan and said, “Hey—they’re getting good.” And now that he is gone, “to hear that song is to have Frank back.”
By continuing to work on behalf of the school and the children Frank loved, then, Josephine and Susan honor him—even last year and this year, which have been hard times for a restaurant so focused on an incomparable in-person dining experience.
And the event that they continue to support keeps people like Michael and Anthony connected both to each other and to the neighborhood. “There’s three or four of us who still maintain a close friendship,” Michael says. It is a friendship that picked up after a twenty-year hiatus and is nurtured over softball games, in addition to the Rao’s Benefit. “The bond that we have picked up instantaneously, a bond that can’t be severed despite our differences about politics. We can fight like crazy and then have a beer afterward.”
While they came at first for the sense of community with what had been in the neighborhood, they are staying for what they see now. Michael says that “in the late Sixties, the education was solid, but what I’ve seen in recent times is far superior to what we experienced. The breadth and scope of their education is far superior. It’s gratifying to see that the school has weathered the storm; they’ve also prospered.”
He adds, “I make the assumption that if you are a kid growing up in East Harlem, you’re a kid like me—” who can benefit from encouragement and opportunity. Michael smiles at his old friend and adds, “I don’t remember being that polite, that smart; they are a cut above, and you just want to help a kid like that have a good life.”
Indeed, a few months ago, at Yoskatery Melo, a current Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary parent, shared an observation about the school that Michael, Anthony, Susan and Josephine would find refreshingly familiar: ““Everyone knows my kids on a first name, last name basis. And there’s a sense of family in the school—like you feel connected to everyone. From the maintenance guy, down to everyone at the office, it’s awesome.”
The Italian world of East Harlem exists mostly only in memories. But every night at Rao’s, Frank Pelligrino, Sr., formed and strengthened a new kind of community, powerful enough to remain vibrant over decades of changes, powerful enough in its bonds to bridge time, big changes, and even the racial divisions that are a visible, lingering sign of the neighborhood’s history. Thanks to Frank and the community that formed him and that he nurtured in turn, a man like Anthony Belli, inspired by a Catholic school teacher who sat on a curb almost sixty years and encouraged him, can turn to the students who now attend the same school and offer them support too, seeing in them “a kid like me.”
And that is a community that our network is privileged to be part of.
Want to be part of the community? The Rao’s Benefit is June 10 and is online this year. For food reservations through June 3, to bid on an auction item—including a table at Rao’s—or simply to make a donation, click here.