Sunday, October 29, 2023

Try the veal

If you are reading on a smartphone, use landscape / hold phone sideways. 

Did your friends laugh at your joke? You could close with, “thank you, folks, try the veal.” The expression “try the veal” is similar to “that’s all, folks!” It’s a way of closing a joke or a comedy set. It’s similar to the saying “been there, done that.”

The phrase has nothing to do with eating veal. It’s a way of telling a crowd of people that you’re finished telling a joke, and they should take their attention away from you to other things in the room or venue.

You can use the phrase “try the veal” as a concluding statement after saying something funny. Comics will use the saying as a closing statement after they finish their act. The phrase suits social use. For instance, if you crack a joke that makes people laugh, you could say, “thanks, folks, you’re too kind. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.”

Around 10 years ago, I was invited (gifted) a dinner at Rao's in NYC. I heard of it, but at the time, I did not KNOW the deal - with the veal - at Rao's. 

So, my favorite show, Billions has now officially ended. In case you didn't see it, I don't want to ruin it, but there is a major scene where Axe pulls out all the stops with a private dinner at Rao's. 

Rao's is famous for not being able to get a table. Like, ever. 

Going from memory (I think it was 2013) I noticed how bright the place was. It may be the brightest fine-dining establishment I've ever been to. The second thing I noticed was Christmas decorations (I was told they stay up year-round). Every chair at every table was full. The bar was crowded. An older man called me over, and motioned to suggest we sit at the two stools open next to him. My oldest son was with me that day. 

"What's your name, and whose table are you at?" he asked. (The tables, as I knew, are all "owned" by regulars who come themselves, invite friends, or donate the table to charity auctions where just the reservation regularly sells for thousands). 

"Capone, I said. Tom Sr. and Jr." 

CAPONE!!! Our special guest! And with that, everyone looked our way... 

The man asked if this was our first time at Rao's. "Yes, but I've been eating Rao's tomato sauce since I was a kid." I knew that would make him smile. 

"The sauce has done well for us," he said. It became clear that this was Frank Pellegrino, one of the owners (aka "Frankie No" because he declines 99% of the requests for reservations). He said he's there every weeknight (Rao's is closed on Saturday and Sunday) except when he's on the West Coast visiting Rao's locations in Las Vegas and Hollywood, which his son manages.

I asked about the reservation policy. Frank said he started assigning tables to steady customers after a three-star review from the New York Times made it nearly impossible to deal with demand.

"The tables are 'owned' by regulars and no one gives them up. Every few months I see all of my clients. And now I am serving their children and grandchildren." Turns out that every table has been booked every night for the past 38 years. 

So how does someone get a table?

"That first table there, they gave their table to this group at the bar. These guys are all executives from (a very BIG Co., can't name them here). If you have a table, you can give it to your friends, your business associates, or to a charity auction (like mine). I never know who's coming in. That's what makes it wonderful. It's serendipity. There's no grand design or plan. The only caveat is if you're not going to use your table and no one else is going to use that table, that's when you call me."

I think that Frank was chatty that day, because I was with my son. And, the name "Capone" helped break the ice. My son and I had the Veal Marsala, but I made sure to not really explain to my son where Veal actually comes from. 

And so, in Season 7, Episode 11 of the TV show Billions Bobby Axelrod takes an influential politician to Rao's for dinner. And watching that show, I was transported back in time to (2013?) with my son, and having the best veal in the city. 

2023: Two months ago, Campbell Soup Company, the iconic canned soup maker, announced it was acquiring Sovos Brands, the company that makes Rao’s sauces, for $2.7 billion. 

Rao's (pronounced ray-ohs) is an Italian-American restaurant founded in 1896. It is located at 455 East 114th Street, on the corner of Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem, New York City. The restaurant was started in 1896 by Joshua Anthony Rao, who moved with his parents from Italy to the United States. He bought a small shop in Italian Harlem, once a very large Italian-American community, and ran the restaurant until his death in 1909. Louis Rao took over the business. 

As I write this Sunday's blog, it hit me that from nothing - Rao's became a billion dollar brand. Frank Pellegrino Sr., a sometime actor and the unflappable gatekeeper of Rao’s, died in 2017. He was 72. I'll never forget how he treated me and my son that day. I admit that at the time, I did not realize where we were, or what we were experiencing. I have never been back to Rao's, and I did not even think about Rao's until Season 7, Episode 11 of Billions. Now I cannot stop thinking about - Rao's the brand. 

A brand so strong, that it was bought for $2.7 billion. A brand so strong that it made it to be highlighted on TV's Billions, where billionaire Bobby Axelrod "buys out" the joint for the night, just to impress someone. Where does a man worth billions take someone to impress them?

Well, you take them to Joshua Anthony Rao's in East Harlem, of course. 

Try the veal.

Rao's sauces, which originated at the exclusive East Harlem Italian restaurant, had sales of $580 million in 2022, largely through Costco and Walmart, and sales have already climbed more than 33% this year so far. 

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