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I'm not sure why the makers of the TV series go to such lengths when they could be filming at Pellegrino's Ristorante, a six-month-old Italian joint located in Deerfield Beach. Situated a half-block off North Federal Highway in a shadowy, hidden strip mall, Pellegrino's is the kind of place you know about only if someone tells you. And if you do find your way to the door, chances are you'll think you've walked straight into the Bronx.
Indeed, Pellegrino's is a Mob cliché come to life. A square, rather plain room with just over 50 seats, the Italian eatery features a terra-cotta tile floor, plain white walls, and framed French and Italian advertisements from the '40s on the walls. A tiny two-seat bar fronts the eatery; a rectangular open kitchen backs it up. White linens drape the tables, which are made of unfinished particle board and are matched by scarred hard-back chairs that make your butt itch if you sit too long. The CD jukebox is stocked with standards by Sinatra and other period lounge crooners, and on a good night, when the place is filled with transplanted Brooklynites who call pasta e fagioli "pasta fazoole," you'd swear Ol' Blue Eyes himself (or maybe his ghost) was about to trot through the portal. No way would you sit with your back to the door -- fertile imaginations conjure weapon-toting gangsters as easily as singers.
Despite the prominence of the Pellegrino name -- bottles of San Pellegrino water are displayed, advertisements for the beverage perch on the tables, and busboys wear San Pellegrino Tshirts -- no relationship exists between owner Bobby Pellegrino and the famous sparkling H2O (or the Mafia, for that matter). But Pellegrino can claim affiliation with another famous Italian family, the Raos, known for their eponymous home-style eatery in East Harlem.
Originally from Pollo, Italy, founder Charles Rao died young, about a decade after starting Rao's in 1896. At first it was basically a local bar. When Charles' son Vincent and Vincent's wife, Anna Pellegrino -- see the connection? -- took over, the place turned into a fabulous Italian restaurant, simply because the two of them loved to cook. Rao's became famous for another reason: Over the hundred years it's been in business, it's refused to change. Not only did it stay put when the neighborhood began to fail, but the dining room was never expanded from its original eight tables. So reservations are near impossible to come by, and the average wait for a table is not two to three hours but two to three years.
Pellegrino's is modeled after Rao's to the extent that it uses the same family recipes; Bobby Pellegrino's cousin Frankie even penned the Rao's Cookbook. Pellegrino himself worked at Rao's for 30 years, starting as a bartender. And if you call for a reservation and your name is unfamiliar, you'll be told you can have one only after a certain time of night. (I've dined there twice on Saturdays at 9 p.m., both times the only slot I could get.) It's hard to tell, though, if Pellegrino's is not exaggerating -- one night I had to wait for my table, but the next time there were many empty seats. Certainly there's no better way to seem exclusive than by presenting yourself as such, as long as you're not too extreme about it.
You can also encounter different crowds, which will change your experience slightly. The second meal we ate was sedate, with locals having a quiet night out. But on my first visit, the restaurant was populated by parties who all seemed to know each other, and who enjoyed singing at the top of their lungs in Italian, chain-smoking, and sipping espresso with anisette. In fact we were the only folks who didn't get kissed on the way in. We did get smooched the second time we visited, though, because our waitress recognized us and was savvy enough to realize that we were fast on our way to becoming regulars.
Indeed Pellegrino's is the kind of place where you should establish relationships with the staff, particularly if you have any hope of dining there a year from now. Pellegrino's is one place I can confidently predict will not only be in business, it'll be mobbed. Because yes, the food is that good. From tomato-and-mozzarella salad to tiramisu, it's as impossible to walk away dissatisfied as it is to secure a table.