The Rao’s story begins not in Vegas but in the Harlem region of New York’s upper Manhattan. And it begins not in this century, not in the previous century even, but in the century before that. It was in 1896 to be precise that Italian immigrant Charles Rao purchased a small saloon at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue and named it Rao’s. With his death in 1909 his sons Louis and Vincent, who were born and raised in the house next door to the saloon, took over Rao’s for themselves.
Slowly, as the decades passed, Rao’s developed such a following in the local neighborhood that a small but growing cadre of patrons maintained standing reservations on certain days. Considering that Rao’s only has ten tables in the entire restaurant, that there is only one seating per evening, and that many existing reservations remain from decades before, it is no surprise that it has become virtually impossible for outsiders to land a reservation. The legend of Rao’s exploded on the New York scene once and for all when New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton published an ecstatic review in 1977. No longer was Rao’s a hidden gem for those in the know. Now, all of a sudden, it was one of the most sought after- and elusive- dining destinations in all of New York.
In this regard, food lovers everywhere rejoiced with the opening of a second, much larger Rao’s at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The design and atmosphere of the Vegas Rao’s certainly can’t match the history and soul of the New York location but it has one key advantage- you can get a table here. And most importantly of all, the food, by all accounts, is exactly the same as the food served at the original location. Which is to say that the food at Vegas Rao’s is delectable. Mouth watering. Old school Italian dishes with a distinctive twist that you won’t soon forget.
Whether you’re visiting Rao’s for a romantic dinner with your significant other or in a large group, family-style, with shared dishes, is the way to go. Start things off with the wonderful Antipasto Della Casa (for two- priced at $29), featuring prosciutto di parma, mild sopresata, roasted bell peppers, mixed olives, buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, grana padano and gorgonzola cheese over dressed arugula. Swing into the main course with a pasta side dish topped with Rao’s unmistakable signature marinara sauce ($23). Made with san marzano tomatoes, this sauce is truly bursting with flavor, the type of flavor where you can literally taste the quality and freshness of the ingredients. It would be criminal not to pair your pasta with a side of Rao’s traditional meatballs in that same wonderful sauce ($16 for two- they’re not small). If you wanna work some veggies into the mix, check out the Peas & Prosciutto, an ideal complimentary dish ($15).
Also distinguishing itself in the pasta section of the menu is the Orecchiette with Broccoli Rappe and Sausage ($26). If you’re wondering what orecchiette is, it’s a somewhat rare and (if you ask me) vastly underrated circular pasta. The name derives from the word orecchio, Italian for “ear,” because orecchiette bears a passing resemblance to a small ear. Either way, it works beautifully in this dish alongside sweet Italian sausage and broccoli rabe, all sautéed in a delightfully flavored extra virgin olive oil. This dish exemplifies what lifts Rao’s above the masses of ho-hum Italian eateries: interesting variations on traditional dishes and perfectly constructed recipes executed with the finest ingredients.
Moving on to the entrees, two of the more memorable offerings include Uncle Vincent’s Famous Lemon Chicken ($26) and the Steak Pizzzaiola ($48). The first of these consists of quartered charcoal broiled chicken served in an excellent lemon sauce. As for the Steak Pizzaiola, it’s a pan-seared 17 oz. prime shell steak sautéed and topped with bell peppers, button mushrooms, onions, and those same san marzano tomatoes that the marinara sauce is based on. Vegas is full of steak houses that talk a good game, but few, if any, serve a steak as perfectly charred and flavorful as this one. The novelty of the pizzaiola style makes for an excellent pairing with the meat itself. More traditional steak lovers who view this pairing with initial skepticism may find themselves pleasantly surprised if they approach with an open mind.
In these cases, and across the menu, Rao’s serves up consistently memorable dishes that are beautifully flavored but always subtle, never overdone. The atmosphere is about as charming as it gets in a casino location. Indeed, the hardwood floors and moderately sized separate rooms seem far removed from the rows of slot machines and blackjack tables that sit outside and around the corner. The jukebox- a legendary component of the New York Rao’s- sets the tone here as well, with plenty of Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and the like wafting through the air as you finish up another great meal with an after-dinner drink (grappa anyone?) and a healthy slice of creamy tiramisu.