Tom Colicchio

The Rao's challenge and the Italian dishes the chefs created struck a personal cord for Tom Colicchio.

on Feb 2, 2011

In New York, where Chinatown abuts Little Italy, it stands to reason that where there was a Chinese food challenge, one featuring Italian-American fare could not be too far behind.

And what better place for it than Raos? As anyone in New York will tell you, Rao's is the quintessential Italian-American restaurant. But from most of them, it'll be hearsay. That's because its famously nearly impossible to get a reservation at Rao's. Rao's has been in the same location since it first opened in 1896, it has only 10 tables in the entire place, the restaurant does one seating per table per night, and for many decades now, the tables have been spoken for every night of the week.

Now, those with standing reservations know that if they're not using the table on their night, they'd best get friends and family to stand in for them those seats must be filled. And they do. So when you call the reservation line, you will likely get a recording telling you that the restaurant has no reservations available for the coming year call back again next year. I ate at Rao's once prior to this Elimination Challenge, when a table for six was auctioned off at a fund raiser and the winning bidder invited me to join the party.

It was good Southern-Italian fare (i.e., as made by Italian-Americans, as I'll discuss shortly), reminiscent of that of my childhood, both at restaurants such as Spirito's and DiMartino's in Elizabeth, NJ (and even Chestnut Tavern in Union, NJ, the second restaurant in which I ever worked), and at home.

Our presence at the dinner table was required every night when I was growing up, and most especially on Sundays, when family around the table expanded to include aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Sunday dinner was served between three and four in the afternoon and always included three courses. We started with a salad of some sort, an antipasto. We'd next have gravy and macaroni (we never called it sauce and pasta), and we'd then have the meat that had been cooked in the gravy as our third course. We wouldn't deviate from that, be it spring, summer, fall or winter.