UPDATE 1 P.M. with more information.
Frank Pellegrino Sr., an actor who appeared in The Sopranos and Goodfellas and ran Harlem’s legendary — and famously exclusive — Rao’s restaurant, died Tuesday after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 72.
His friend Bo Dietl confirmed Pellegrino’s death, telling the New York Post‘s Page Six: “We lost a part of New York today when we lost Frankie. There’s nobody like him, he’s an icon.” Dietl said Pellegrino died at NY’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital with his family at his side.
As an actor, Pellegrino is best known for his roles as Bureau Chief Frank Cubitoso on The Sopranos and Johnny Dio in Goodfellas. He was cast in 1990’s Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese, a longtime regular at Rao’s. Pellegrino most recently appeared on TV in 2015 with a guest role on Odd Mom Out. His other credits include guest-starring roles in Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Third Watch and a series regular role on New York Undercover. Along with Goodfellas, his feature credits include Cop Land (1997) and Mickey Blue Eyes (1999).
Pellegrino was a beloved fixture at Rao’s where, in addition to Scorsese, bold-face diners over the years included Leonardo DiCaprio — who filmed a scene for The Wolf Of Wall Street at the uptown restaurant — as well as Woody Allen, Keith Richards, Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Fallon and others.
But Rao’s in fact had a much homier side as a gathering spot known to create improvisational theater around an Italian meal every night, beginning long before the famously tough New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton put it on the map with a three-star review in 1977. Anna and Vincent Rao ruled the East Harlem roost, and recreating classic Italian dishes with care and to order – one seating a night in those days – not dripping, but delicate in the use of sauce. Frankie, as he was known to all, joined the family business in the 1970s, when the city was in the pits, first bartending, then working the floor, attending every customer with a, “So what do we want to eat tonight?” Eventually he was running the front of the house, greeting and singing and leading the party every night.
More than celebrity types – though name-dropping always was good for business – it was in fact the regular folks from around the corner, who came by with the requisite dees, dems and dos, that Frankie typically did make room for, mopping up sauce with the last crust of bread from the basket, while soaking up the exclusive vibe as well: Theater in its purest form.
Pellegrino is survived by his his wife Josephine; son Frank Pellegrino Jr., who runs Rao’s restaurants in L.A. and Las Vegas; and a daughter.