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Volume 20 No. 42
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Want a shot at one of New York City’s toughest tables? It helps to be a New York Giant

Three days after the New York Giants won their last Super Bowl matchup against the New England Patriots, quarterback Eli Manning and offensive lineman Shaun O’Hara found themselves singing “New York, New York” with Yogi Berra at a tiny Italian restaurant in East Harlem called Rao’s.

Don’t be surprised if Eli is back there next week, win or lose. The connection between the Giants and, in the world of New York restaurants, the legendary Rao’s, which has 11 tables and doesn’t take reservations, is tight and flows through one man: head chef Dino Gatto.

Dino Gatto, head chef at Rao’s, is “an amazingly loyal fan,” Giants co-owner Steve Tisch says.
Gatto has credentials for on-field access at MetLife Stadium and travels with the team unless there is a Monday or Thursday game; Rao’s is closed on weekends. He often eats with the players at the training complex, he frequently cooks for the trainers, and he gets his Super Bowl tickets and hotel room through team co-owner Steve Tisch.

And it’s not just the Giants. Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a friend of Gatto’s.

“I was walking down by Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco the Friday before [the NFC Championship game], and there was Roger walking with his wife and kids,” Gatto said. “And he came over and we started talking, for about 15 minutes.”

Every team, of course, has its own unique characters and culture. For the Giants, Gatto is part of theirs.

“We don’t have cheerleaders, we don’t have mascots — but we have Dino,” said Tisch, who estimates he dines at Rao’s twice a month. After the Giants’ win over the Falcons in the first round of the playoffs, Tisch stopped by Rao’s (pronounced “Ray-ohs”) and bought drinks for everyone there, Gatto said.

Tisch frequently brings players, including former Giants and current Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress, with him to the restaurant. “Plax loves it,” Tisch said.

Located on a desolate and dingy corner of East Harlem, Rao’s opened in 1896 and is best known for its meatballs and sauce. It’s been known at times for attracting a colorful crowd (finger flashes across nose) and today may be the hardest restaurant to get into in the city. Knowing someone, or knowing someone who knows someone, and so on, is the only way to get a table.

A host of Giants players have eaten there, including Manning, Jake Ballard, Victor Cruz and Bear Pascoe. Giants players are hardly the only celebrities seeking a seat, either, with Madonna, as legend has it, famously having been turned away one night.

Gatto tailgates outside MetLife Stadium before Giants home games, his spot steps away from the entrance. One game a year, he throws a massive tailgate with around 200 people. This season’s feast occurred before the Miami game in October, and attendees included Steve’s brother, Loews Hotel Chairman Jonathan Tisch; Chris Mara, senior vice president of player personnel for the team; former Giants running back Rodney Hampton; and former New York Knicks forward Anthony Mason.

Gatto, 44, has been cooking since he was 15, starting at a deli owned by a friend of his father’s. “I wasn’t one for school books, so I went to culinary school,” he said. After several stints at New York restaurants, including at The Plaza, he landed at Rao’s 16 years ago.

One of Rao’s customers was Kevin Corbett, a former Giants executive who handled new media for the team. They became friends, and Corbett introduced Gatto to Ronnie Barnes, the team’s vice president of medical services. One thing led to another, and 10 years ago, the team gave Gatto his own credential.

“He is an amazingly loyal fan,” Tisch said. “He travels to every game, doesn’t matter how far or how difficult it is to get there. He is at every away game and every home game.”

And he will certainly be at a game in Indianapolis on Sunday.