Harlem to Hollywood — NYPD detective Sonny Grosso earns props at Scorsese’s “The Irishman” Premiere

Grosso’s Guys — Judge Torres, Music Impresario Ramone, Ranger Legend Rod Cilbert

At the recent red carpet premiere for Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The Irishman, at the New York Film Festival, actors such as Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, Al Pacino and Bobby Cannavale talked about many things New York. And, also about the hardest “get” in the City. That famous place is venerable eatery, Rao’s Restaurant, which opened in Italian Harlem in 1896 at the corner of 114th Street and Pleasant Avenue.

A Vanity Fair magazine headline once proclaimed, “Welcome to Rao’s, New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurant.” You have to be invited by one of Rao’s regulars to get into his cozy establishment with only a handful of tables. It’s frequented by a who’s who of the rich and famous. And, there’s also one table set aside for the locals with “bent noses,” as Sonny quips — you know, the neighborhood guys.

Anyway, at the film’s premiere, Harvey Keitel’s wife, Daphna Kastner, jokingly suggested, that you have to “kill somebody,” to get in. Bobby Cannavale suggested more correctly: “You got to make buddies with Bo Dietl, or Woody Allen, or Sonny Grosso,” referring to the NYPD detective immortalized in The French Connection. “Those are the three guys I’ve been there with.”

Sonny Grosso & Billy Friedkin who directed his pal’s story into a 5-time Oscar winning classic
Sonny with two New York sports legends, Torre and Strahan

He’s right about Sonny Grosso, who grew up around the corner on 115th Street, the street that appeared in The French Connection movie and also in The Godfather. On these two movies, NYPD detective Grosso was also a technical advisor, while still doing his day job. Grosso’s real-life story was turned into reel-life and the Oscar winning movie The French Connection in 1971. He later became an award-winning producer of TV shows and movies after he retired from the NYPD. Grosso is as authentic a New Yorker as they come, remembering what an impact Rao’s had on his early life.

Blogger/author Ashley Jude Collie with his Italian “godfather” Sonny Grosso

This is an except from his memorable and upcoming memoir, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by French Connection detective Sonny Grosso:

“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 Italian 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. My childhood pal Eddie Torres once noted that 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 our beloved Jefferson 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 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.’”

For many years, Grosso would hold court on Monday at Rao’s restaurant where he regaled guests with his incredible Harlem to Hollywood stories. Here’s one about Jack Nicholson, who coincidentally presented the Best Picture Oscar to The French Connection producer Phil D’Antoni, the film’s fifth award of an unforgettable evening.

Grosso and Torres outside Rao’s, across from their boyhood playground, Jefferson Park

Grosso tells his Jack Nicholson story from the chapter — “The Night That Jack Nicholson Came to Rao’s in Harlem to Eat Macaroni with Me” — suggesting Jack’s visit sent Rao’s influential clientele into a tizzy:

“I told Jack about my mother’s Saturday ‘shopping’ trips in the neighborhood. She’d go out for two hours from eleven to one with a little apron on because she used to touch everything under the sun. When she came back, she knew who was pregnant, who was getting divorced, who went to jail, who was dating who, who had a fight. She had the scoop on everything because all the women would tell her exactly what’s what. Saturday was really for getting the news, for getting all the gossip to tell my father about. She was like a throwback Entertainment Weekly or TMZ correspondent, getting all the juicy stories! Jack laughed his head off and told me he could relate because we had things in common. He grew up in Asbury Park in New Jersey where my mother was raised. As a kid, he was also a big Yankees fan and a bleacher bum like me, watching with eyes wide open as our heroes like Joe DiMaggio performed their magic.”

Grosso says Nicholson graciously accommodated all photo requests inside Rao’s and the delighted customers gave him a standing ovation when he left. But Grosso, who’d never seen a reaction like that, suggests a side story speaks volumes about Nicholson and also about the lasting aura of the once magical neighborhood of Italian Harlem.

Sonny took his beloved mom Lillian to Rao’s and Frankie “No” sang Under the Boardwalk
Sonny and Chrissy at Sonny’s Rao’s table

While waiting for Grosso, Nicholson was asked by longtime Rao’s headwaiter, Tommy, if he’d mind visiting his mother and grandmother down the block. As Grosso continues to tell it:

“Tommy says to Jack, ‘They’d get such a thrill to see you.’ Jack replies, ‘Sure, let’s go see them.’ Jack takes photos with them. Then Tommy’s grandmother says in her sweet Italian accent, ‘I’mma live in disa house eighty-six years! I go-a nowhere, except disa house. I never thought anything like a-dis could ever happen to me. I love-a you, Mista Nicholson! You-a my favorite actor.’ He kisses her, saying, ‘You can call me Jack.’ Afterwards, she phoned everybody under the sun about it. Although, she passed shortly after, Jack’s generosity left a lasting impression.”

Sonny with two more New York Sports legends, Girardi and Gilbert

Grosso, who has earned the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor alongside then-President Bill Clinton, another A-lister he invited oover to his table at Rao’s, adds, “I swear, you cannot make this stuff up. As I’ve found in my producing career, reality often makes for better stories than fiction. And moments make movie magic!”

Click on the highlighted words for hyperlinks to movie and story clips from detective Sonny Grosso’s career. Stay tuned for the upcoming book, Harlem to Hollywood, My Real-to-Reel Life by French Connection detective Sonny Grosso. Ashley Jude Collie’s new dystopian novel, REJEX, is available on Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK), and Amazon worldwide.

Award-winning journalist-author-blogger for Playboy, TO Star, Movie Entertainment, HuffPost, Hello Canada & my novel REJEX (Pulp Hero Press) is on Amazon.