On 45th Anniversary of "French Connection" release, Det. Sonny Grosso talks about taking Friedkin and his Mother to "impenetrable" Rao's
“Under the boardwalk, down by the sea, yeah
On a blanket with my baby is where I’ll be…”
–Under the Boardwalk, The Drifters
In the terrific and recent Vanity Fair story about Rao’s — “Welcome to Rao’s, New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurant” — there was a photo of the famous French Connection detective, Sonny Grosso, at his weekly table at the very center of the “impenetrable New York institution where many would love to eat but almost none can get a table.”
Grosso, who was born one block away on 115th Street in Harlem, has been dining at his “Monday’s at Rao’s” table for many years. Rao’s has been a part of Grosso’s life since he was a kid playing stickball in the street wondering what went on inside the “neighborhood” eatery, to trying to impress a girlfriend by taking her to the celebrated restaurant, to helping to arrest “Lump Lump” Barone when he shot someone in the restaurant, as Vanity Fair noted.
Grosso, who became an award-winning TV and movie producer after he retired from the NYPD, recently celebrated the 45th Anniversary of the release (October 09, 1971) of the 5-time Academy Award-winning movie, The French Connection. He shared an interview with the movie’s director Billy Friedkin for Empire (UK) magazine.
Grosso recalls taking the Oscar-winning helmer to Rao’s for the first time:
We shot around my neighborhood, and I was taking him to Rao’s. But Billy says, ‘Sonny, I don’t want to go anywhere where they have fake grapes. If I see any fake grapes, I’m walking right back out.’ I say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ He replies, ‘You know, some of the less authentic Italian places have fake grapes hanging down.’ He wanted to go to an Italian restaurant in Harlem that was real. And Rao’s was certainly authentic and real.
Grosso, who’s working on his memoir, Harlem to Hollywood: My Real to Reel Life, says Rao’s is forever anchored to his life:
Rao’s was fascinating to us kids, there were all sorts of stories like the neighborhood ‘action’ guys who’d go there to eat. But East Harlem really was a family place where you could smell Sunday sauce, and where we kids played stickball in the street and watched wide-eyed at life going by. One childhood pal said Joe Rao had something in his car that he’d press and when he approached his garage, the door would open. So we used to sit in the park in the bushes across the street from his house. We’d buy pretzels and popcorn, like we were going to the movies, and just wait. One day, I went by myself. I saw the garage door open up, and then suddenly Joe Rao drives down the block and pulls into the garage. To me it was like space travel — beam me up, Scotty! We didn’t know from remote controllers. When the garage door closed behind him, I ran around the corner shouting, ‘I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it!’ They’re going, “Yeah, bullshit!” And I’m trying to explain to my pals, ‘No, he had this thing, the door went up, he wasn’t even there.’
And, when he was still a teenager, Grosso tried to impress a girl by taking her there:
I was 17, almost 18, and she was really beautiful. Everybody in the neighborhood and all the wise guys were trying to get with her. When I came to pick her up, I only had a learner’s permit, but I borrowed my uncle’s car. I arrived at her place and her parents were looking down from their window and all the neighbors were on the stoop staring. They’d all heard I was taking her to Rao’s. And, she kept asking, “You’re really going to take me to Rao’s?” And I’m talking it up big-time, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ So when I walked inside the restaurant, Joe gives me a hug and I introduce him to her. Joe used to keep an eye on me after my father died when I was only 14. He even graciously came to my dad’s funeral. So he says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I say, ‘Well, we were going to have something to eat.’ He says, “Do me a favor, Sonny, come back when you’re both eighteen.” I was pissed off but I say to her, ‘Well, I’ll drive you home.’ She says, ‘Don’t bother, I can walk,’ because she lived only two blocks away! Many years later when I became a cop, I went to Joe and asked, “What the hell was that about? You embarrassed the hell out of me.” He said they (police) were taking pictures from across the street and if they saw underage kids coming in, they could raid Rao’s and take his liquor license away. I said, ‘Why couldn’t you tell me something?’ He replied, ‘I’m not going to talk to you about that when you’re 17.’ It made sense.
Apart from entertaining the crème de la crème of Hollywood and New York celebrities at Rao’s, Grosso also once took his beloved mother, Lillian, who always used to tell him as a kid, “Don’t look in there!”
She didn’t want to go because now she was in a wheelchair. I say, ‘Ma, we’ll get you there early, we’ll push the wheelchair up under the table and it will look like a regular chair.’ She finally said okay and we took her. And the greatest sight that I can remember of my mother was when my pal and co-owner Frankie ‘No’ sang ‘Under the Boardwalk’ — Ma had met my father, Benny, on the Asbury Park boardwalk, and it was love at first sight and he told her he’d back the next summer to propose, which he did. So, Frankie kindly invited Ma to sing backup. She had such a great time, everybody applauded, came over and hugged her, and it was so wonderful to see. It was just too bad, my father couldn’t be there with her again…under the boardwalk in Asbury Park.
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