I never thought I'd eat at Rao's cos no one eats at Rao's.

Every Yelp review and every magazine profile calls it the hardest place in New York - nay, the whole of America - to get a table.

There's no waiting list. There's no booking form. You have to be a President, a Yankee or an old-world gangster to get in. I'd be surprised if they'd ever served anyone from New Zealand before.

I found the restaurant when I moved to East Harlem. I jogged past one day and almost missed it, dark and private, set below the street.


The place is 120 years old. It has room for 10 tables and little else, a leftover from when the Italians still had the 'hood.

I went for a drink at the bar once. You can drink at Rao's, you're just not allowed to eat. I necked a gin and soaked in the space.

There were no menus or fancy tablecloths, just wooden booths and red sauce. The walls were headshots of movie stars and politicians, signatures of the elite.

In 2003, Rao's had a murder right in the middle of the dinner service.

A couple of mobsters got into an argument and one pulled out a gun. The internet reckoned you could see a blood stain on the dining room floor for years thereafter. Enjoy your pasta sauce.

It was 9.30pm midweek when I ate at Rao's.

How? A friend. A favour. I'm forever in his debt. We had calamari done two ways. Rigatoni, linguini, clams and bolognese. The eggplant parmigiana was as rich as heavy cream. The veal was superb. But the meatballs, tennis ball-big and light as flour, were the stuff of meaty fantasy.

The owner, a guy called Frankie Pellegrino, shook every diner's hand. He's an actor who is always cast as a mobster: Goodfellas, Mickey Blue Eyes and The Sopranos.

Sometimes at Rao's it's hard to know where the show starts and ends. We walked out late into the New York night with meat and pasta up to our gullets. I'd recommend it in a heartbeat but I'll probably never go again.

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