Walking into the new Rao's in Hollywood--the latest branch of Harlem's legendary old-school Italian haunt--feels like stumbling onto a movie set.
Dark wood walls are plastered with signed headshots of Rat Pack-era celebrities and Christmas decorations that stay up year-round. Your gesticulating waiter recommends the spaghetti Bolognese and a glass of Chianti in a rough Bronx accent. What coast are we on again?
The restaurant's original location in New York--outfitted with just ten tables--is known for its impossible-to-procure reservations. In Goodfellas terms, you have to know someone who knows someone.
In Hollywood, reservations are decidedly less difficult. Once you've settled into your plush leather booth, it's best to start with a plate of baseball-sized meatballs swimming in marinara ($16), which yield to the lightest pull of a fork.
The rest of the menu is equally iconic: We savored a superb veal Parmesan ($49) paved with an inch-thick layer of melted mozzarella and chilled seafood salad ($26) made with tender rings of squid and fresh shellfish tossed in lemon vinaigrette.
The simple Italian-American cooking--produced by executive chef Nicole Grimes--is hearty and charming, but for these prices, it's more about the atmosphere.
Rao's nostalgic warmth might be a borrowed act, but it makes for a darn good show.