The Austin Chronicle


By Virginia B. Wood, October 20, 2000, Food

Dinner at Rao's

Since it's highly unlikely that any Central Texans will ever dine at the famed Rao's Restaurant in Manhattan's East Harlem, an enthusiastic sell-out crowd jammed into the classroom at Central Market last Friday night to enjoy dinner entrées prepared by the restaurant's congenial proprietor, Frank Pellegrino. Pellegrino is the third generation of his family to operate the 100-year-old Rao's, a 10-table restaurant that's equally famous for its earthy Southern Italian cooking and for the fact that it's impossible to get a reservation to eat there. Though it was difficult to tell if the largest-ever cooking-class crowd was there because of the restaurant's fame or because sometime singer/actor Pellegrino has a recurring part in HBO's wildly popular Sopranos series, at the end of the class the charming New Yorker had us eating right out of his hand, both literally and figuratively. He's a staunch believer in quality ingredients and keeps his Italian food simple and robust, just like the women who taught him to cook. The food was delicious, served to the strains of music from a CD featuring the best cuts from Rao's award-winning jukebox. If you missed the class and would like a taste of Rao's, Central Market carries the full line of Rao's signature sauces, created by Frank Pellegrino himself.

Baking and Pastry News

Bakery owners all over town have complained for years about the lack of well-trained production bakers for hire in Austin, and now they're addressing the problem. As part of the Austin Independent School District's new Baking Apprenticeship Program at Johnston High School, students will have the opportunity to train with some of the most respected bakers in town. Four students already enrolled in the program will apprentice at Central Market, Sweetish Hill, Texas French Bread, and Whole Foods Bake House. For the next three years, students from the program will work with professional bakers part time while attending school full time in the summer, and one year after completing high school for a total of 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, meeting all U.S. Dept. of Labor standards. The well-trained graduates of this program should find a hot job market with the Austin restaurant industry booming, as these new positions demonstrate. Recently, the Jeffrey's restaurant group hired Michael Gonzalez away from the Four Seasons to oversee the baking and dessert preparations in their four busy outlets. Last month, the owners of ASTI lured Jacob Zavala away from Houston to prepare their signature focaccia, bread sticks, and creative desserts. Cafe Mia hasn't added a pastry chef yet, but the popular Northwest Hills takeout spot now features a line of delicious desserts prepared by Rather Sweet's wholesale operation and may add a bakery at their next location if expansion plans materialize. And the newly revitalized Driskill Hotel has plans to open a casual dining outlet and full-service bakery this spring in the space formerly occupied by the 1886 Room on the Sixth Street side of the hotel. This can't happen too soon to suit Driskill pastry chef Anwar Khattabi, who looks forward to a new pastry kitchen. This flurry of baking activity makes me pine for my own little pie shop somewhere but I'm confident the urge will pass.

New Offerings

Two local eateries have recently extended their hours. Sardine Rouge (311 W. Sixth, 473-8642) has added weekday lunches (11:30am-2pm) to their lineup, and Siena Ristorante Toscana (6203 Capital of Texas Hwy., 349-7667) is now open for dinner on Sunday nights from 5-10pm.

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