I vividly remember the first time. My parents and I were returning from our monthly Sunday visit with Sister Miguela, a BVM, whose Chicago convent meant going through Skokie. It was the late 50s and pizza was just making its grand entrance on American palates. Driving home we ordered one to go at the only pizza place in town and gobbled it down later at our grey Formica kitchen table. Over the decades, hundreds and hundreds were fondly devoured and the love for Italian food multiplied.
Enter Franny Santostefano, my best friend in high school, who often invited me for the weekend. Her wee, cherubic parents, Angie and Henry, were from Calabria, Italy and had immigrated first to Wisconsin and then Highland Park, Illinois. Their lively and boisterous Sunday meals were a culinary thrill for me, an only child, who had had too many iceberg lettuce salads with fish stick dinners in the past. Surrounded by Franny's two sisters, husbands, her brother, his girlfriend and grandchildren, the offerings were epic — ravioli (handmade by sister Rose from scratch), enormous roasts, homemade lasagna (Angie's specialty), fresh Italian bread, gigantic salads created with the freshest ingredients. Picture any Italian movie with a convivial dinner scene and you've captured that same essence of pleasure that I had.
Sadly, this brings me to a personal lament. Number one on my bucket list. And a wish that will never, NEVER happen. Sigh. To dine at Rao's, an over 100-year-old Italian restaurant tucked on a corner of East Harlem at 114th and Pleasant. Red door. Four steps down. Six booths. Four tables. A juke box playing Frank and Dean and Tony. The red canopy over the bar is christened with year-round Christmas decorations and lights. The best Italian food anywhere (or so I've heard). Cash or check only. And impossible to get into. No reservations — simply table assignments bestowed decades ago by the owner to neighborhood folks, children and grandchildren of neighborhood folks, friends of these children and grandchildren of neighborhood folks, and an occasional famous person who knows one of these descendants of neighborhood folks, etc.
So to soothe myself, I page through a Rao's cookbook, buy its incomparable marinara sauce (no sugar) at Safeway, glide past the frozen food section, the pasta aisle, the soup shelves where Rao's logo shines brightly and continue sighing. Buen appetito!
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