Monday, January 07, 2008

Sunday Sauce (An Ode To Rao's)

This probably should have been the first installment in this new galloping gourmet series, because it's the dish we make most often in our house - almost every week - usually on Sunday. It's an unbelievably simple approach to great and flavorful tomato sauce that was loosely adapted from the marinara sauce recipe out of the Rao's Cookbook.

Before we go any further, just a few words about Rao's.

In the mid-1990s, when I was living and working in Washington, I found a jarred marinara sauce from a place called Rao's. It was the best sauce I'd ever tasted out of a jar, maybe just the best I'd ever tasted. I don't remember the exact language on the label, but it said something about being from the "world famous Rao's" in New York, a tiny 100-year-old restaurant I'd never heard of where even "celebrities" waited months for tables.

I kept buying the sauce, and when I was getting ready to move back to New York, securing a table at Rao's was high on the relocation agenda. I called information for the phone number and dialed. Someone answered.

"Hello," I said, brimming with youthful hope and naive optimism. "I'd like to see about making a reservation."

The person on the other end seemed confused, which confused me. This was a restaurant, right? A place where people arranged for tables and food?

"Yeah, ugh, I'm sorry. We're fully booked right now."

I figured there must have been some misunderstanding, maybe the guy thought I was talking about a table that night or something. If "celebrities" could wait a few months, so could I.

"I don't mean tonight or even this week," I said. "I'm moving back to New York and I'd be happy to get a table in a few months, whenever, I just want to make a reservation."

"Yeah, ugh, it doesn't really work that way. We're pretty booked up, and we're not really taking reservations right now."

I was undeterred.

"Nothing at all? For the rest of the year? I'm serious, it doesn't matter how long I have to wait, I just want to have dinner there. I've been buying your sauce down here in Washington (establish trust... assert history of expat patronage) and it's the best sauce I've ever had (throw in a compliment, couldn't hurt), so I want to come in there and have it at the restaurant."

"Yeah, ugh, we're booked."

Eventually it was explained to me that the best (and only) way to get a table at Rao's without a connection to someone who actually had a standing reservation for one was to call around 6 p.m., ask for Anthony or Frank (Pellegrino) Jr. and see if they had any cancellations that night. There are about 10 tables in all, and they basically don't turn over. You sit, eat and stay - that's part of it. And Rao's is closed on Saturday and Sunday. Not the most hopeful of odds.

But when I moved back to New York, I started calling. Every night. Usually I spoke with Anthony, sometimes Frank Jr. The conversations were short and always ended with the same words, "no... nothing tonight."

It seemed pointless, I felt dumb about it, but I wanted this meal, so I kept calling. And calling. And calling. Weeks turned into months. And then, on a random a Friday night, it happened. Anthony asked me to hold on - this was not typical - and handed the phone to Frank Jr. We had a little exchange about my persistence and agreeable nature, and he said, "OK. What time do you want to come in, and how many people?"

What time? How many people?
At this point I would have eaten dinner alone, sitting on a plastic drum in the corner. Suddenly, it was like I was being handed the keys to the castle, at least for one night.

I wound up taking one of my sisters, who lived in the city and was available on short (i.e. "no") notice. The meal was fantastic - great and simple Italian home-cooking, and the experience itself was even more striking and memorable. Just being there, in that room. The Christmas lights on the bar, the photos on the walls, the fact that there were no menus, just Frank Jr. pulling up a chair to tell you what was "good" that night. The bill was scrawled and calculated on one of those green and white "Guest Check" receipts you'd expect to see in a diner, not at a place where "celebrities" waited months for a table. It was a meal I'll never forget, and one that made me want to keep on calling.

Over the next few months I wound up going back three more times. One night with friends, another with my other sister, ultimately with Gwen. We had the seafood salad, the roasted peppers, the lemon chicken, the filetto di pomodoro sauce, the pork chops with hot and sweet peppers. We met Frank Sr. It was tremendous.

After four visits, the dedication to the nightly calls waned a bit. Then we moved out to the suburbs, and the ability to take advantage of a spontaneous Rao's nod basically fell off a cliff. They came out with the cookbook referenced above, a CD of music out of the jukebox and many more varieties of sauce and branded foods. I gather competition is tougher than ever for those elusive cancellations. But I'll never forget the place, and when we make this sauce I still think about it.

Here is all you'll need:

1 large can of imported Italian whole peeled tomatoes (6 lb. 10 oz.), preferably San Marzano variety (We like a brand called "Nina," which is available at Costco, believe it or not)

1/4 cup of good extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion (about 3/4 cup)

5 to 6 cloves garlic (We like a lot of garlic, feel free to dial it back if you don't - or you could just buy a jar of Prego)

2 tsp. salt (we use sea salt)

1. Crush or slice the tomatoes, removing the stem ends and any of the hard internal cores - which are discarded. I usually do this in the sink, cutting/crushing the tomatoes over a large glass pitcher and putting the stems off to the side, on a paper towel, for easy collection and disposal. Reserve the tomato juice that remains in the can. You will need it.

2. Chop up the onion and garlic. You need about 3/4 of a cup of onion and four, five, six, twelve? cloves of diced garlic. Crush the cloves with the flat side of a large knife and then mince.

3. Add the oil to a deep sauce pot on medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for about two minutes, stirring frequently to avoid browning or burning.

4. Add the chopped tomatoes, the juice from the can and the salt to the pot, leave on high heat until the combined mixture begins to boil - this should take no more than 4 or 5 minutes. As soon as you see a boil, reduce heat to low, stir well and leave to simmer for an hour - stirring every 10-15 minutes.

Hopefully Frankie Pellegrino would be proud.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This looks soooo Good! Thanks for sharing!

1:57 PM  
Blogger BizyBee said...

That looks delicious!
I hope you post more recipes... I have to learn how to cook!

6:18 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I am soooo hungry after seeing this recipe, I think I am going to make it this weekend. Hope you post more soon.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this entry, I looked up Rao's on Wikipedia. I am very impressed that you got in!! Thanks for sharing the recipe and your story. Food and music both are better when reccomended so highly from others.

I have this and your pizza crust recipe printed and ready for testing this Thursday for eating on Friday!

10:44 AM  

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