A cheerful host welcomes you to Rao's and leads the way to your table through a broad corridor with hundreds of celebrity photographs lining the walls. A big photo of Anna and Vincent Rao, the couple that made Rao's famous in New York, hangs in front of the restaurant.
Ahead is the center bar with a bright red awning and Christmas decorations---wreaths, garland, big red velvet bows.
Slipping into a dark wood booth, it's impossible not to notice the neighboring table, inhabited by a large group of 40-something gentlemen, singing along to music and dancing in their chairs.
You're about to open the menu when a friendly server pulls up a chair and plops down, telling you that the Rao's tradition has been around for more than a century. Maybe this server tells you about a couple of their favorite dishes -- the lemon chicken or famous meatballs.
And that's when it hits you. You're not in Las Vegas anymore.
Actually you are still in Las Vegas, inside Caesars Palace to be exact. But it's hard to imagine that a restaurant with the genuine, honest qualities of East Harlem can be situated in a city where bigger equals better and more equals never enough.
Rao's is a diamond in a city full of cubic zirconias.
The exclusive Rao's in New York City has fed and entertained celebrities like Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner and Mariah Carey, just to name a few.
Now, Frank Pellegrino Sr., Frank Pellegrino Jr. and Ron Straci have carried on the century-long family tradition of home-style Italian cooking by opening a larger version inside Caesars Palace. The extra room means guests can enjoy the same cuisine that put Rao's on the map, without the four-month waiting list.
Since it is a family-run business, a relative of the Pellegrino or Straci family is on the premises nearly all the time. That dedication, says Frank Pellegrino, is one of the biggest difference between Rao's and other Italian restaurants.
It is other nuances, such as making sure the servers greet guests and sit with them to explain the menu, that keep guests coming back.
Loyal customers dine on gnocchi, baked clams and colossal shrimp in parsley, garlic and butter. All dishes are made with imported Italian ingredients, from San Marizano tomatoes to prosciutto and mozzarella.
In true Italian tradition, Pellegrino Jr. explains the dishes are meant to be served family-style.
"If you have the opportunity to share, different foods or what have you, I think it embellishes the experience and goes back to building relationships and making relationships stronger," he says.
Desserts like a light ricotta cheesecake (which can fully hold its own in any competition against traditional New York cheesecake), tiramisu and an apple tart in a flaky, buttery pastry will leave those with a sweet tooth wanting nothing more (except for maybe a record of Dean Martin singing "That's Amore," and a cigar).
Rao's also has a few amenities worth checking out. A 14-seat private dining room is available and recent visitors included celebrities Mariah Carey, New Kids on the Block and Bette Midler. There is also the patio backing the Caesars Palace pool and a bocce ball court.
Then there is Rao's wine: Three types of domestic, a Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet, and eight kinds imported from Italy; all purveyed with Rao's quality in mind.
Pellegrino Jr. has a passion for what he does.
"I started off as a busboy at Rao's at the age of 12 never thinking I was going to stay in the business, and I never left," explains Frank Pellegrino. "It's in [my] blood, and a lot of it had to do with the relationships that were built. I got to interact with so many incredible people, regular people, working people, CEOs, celebrities, billionaires."
Perhaps Frank sums it up best.
"Rao's is truly about building relationships with the people who come and support us," he says. "And that is really the heart and soul of Rao's. We built an extended family. And I think that's our greatest achievement out of anything we've accomplished."
-- Review by Nikki Neu