Slowly, the signs of fame are creeping into the life of Ray Romano. The regular-guy comic from Queens, New York, certainly wouldn’t be the first TV star tempted to pull celebrity rant at a restaurant, even if he does have a thing or two to lean about Southern California chic. Leave it to other stars to demand better seats at the Four Seasons: Romano just wants the latest giveaway (and out-of-stock) toy from Taco Bell. “Can’t you just tell them you’re Ray Romano from Everybody Loves Raymond?” asks Ray’s 8-year-old daughter, Alexandra. Romano, whose who does for the common man what Sienfeld did for the common neurotic, passes on the opportunity. He won’t drop his name, even at the local Taco Bell.

But don’t be fooled by the unassuming demeanor, the pleasant-looking don’t-I-know-you-from-somewhere face. After two seasons in the shadows of such sitcom juggernauts as Sienfeld and Home Improvement, Romano and his show have quietly risen to the upper echelon of TV success. Everybody Loves Raymond (Mondays, 9 P.M./ET) routinely ranks among the top 10 rated programs, reestablishing CBS as Monday’s prime-time leader by edging out the competition, including the trendy, headline-making Ally McBeal. Pending syndication and cable deals for Raymond reruns could generate sales of $3 million per episode, according to industry estimates.

These are good times for the man – and the show – that everybody really does seem to love. The 41-year-old comic is considering movie projects, scouting for a new home with his wife Anna, and has performed for President Clinton. After two seasons of snubs from Emmy voters, Romano and his showmates are expecting their first nominations this year. Peter Boyle, who plays Ray’s dad, Frank, is a veteran film actor best known for his makeup-laden performance as the monster in “Young Frankenstein.” “I’ve been a recognizable person for many years,” Boyle says, “but now people identify me with this show. I don’t have to explain who I am anymore.”

While networks have been busy this season stretching sitcom boundaries with everything from The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer to Sports Night, Raymond sneaked away with viewers by keeping its focus on the familiar suburban lives of sportswriter Ray Barone, his wife (Patricia Heaton) and kids, parents (Boyle, Doris Roberts) and brother (Brad Garrett).

“When we debuted, we had nothing appealing to the eye,” Romano says. “We were not trying to sell sex. But I always thought it was a matter of time [before the show found an audience].” Says creator-executive producer Philip Rosenthal: “Maybe [the public] has had it with the trendy shows. Everything is cyclical, and it has come back to this old-fashioned kind of well-made sitcom.” Even the sets reflect the show’s debt to TV tradition: Parts of the kitchen belonging to Raymond’s parents were salvaged from the TV home of another comic couple from Queens, All in the Family’s Archie and Edith Bunker.

But unlike that “70s show, Raymond isn’t interested in social issues or messages. “Ray is an Everyman,” says CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves. “there’s not anything in the slightest way pretentious about him.”

A fairly wealthy Everyman, to be sure. Romano recently renegotiated his contract, extending his commitment through a sixth season for a reported 50 percent raise in salary and a share of the potentially hefty syndication revenue. Could fame and fortune spoil Ray Romano?

“Ray wouldn’t know how to change,” says Kevin James, Romano’s close friend and star of CBS’s King of Queens. “The thing that has changed is that he now has the money to buy things that make him more neurotic.” Example: Romano recently bought an electric tongue cleaner and was so pleased he purchased one for James.

If a tongue cleaner or two doesn’t exactly seem an exercise in extravagance, consider that Romano’s overnight success came after 13 years of playing every comedy club on the circuit. His first big break came – and went – when hi was cast as Rick the handyman on NewsRadio, a job that lasted all of 24 hours (producers rewrote the character and replaced Romano with Joe Rogan).

Then came his second, even bigger, break. An appearance on Late Show With David Letterman led to a deal with Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, to create a series that closely mirrored Romano’s own family life. At the time, the Romano’s – Ray, Anna, Alexandra and twins Gregory and Matthew (now 6 years old; a fourth child, Joe, was born a year ago) – lived in Queens near Ray’s parents, Lucie and Albert, and brother Richard, a New York City policeman (who has since moved out of his parents’ home). Some liberties were taken; Romano’s second brother, Robert, a New York public relations executive, didn’t make it into the script, and Lucie Romano insists she and her husband never barged in on the young family as their fictional counterparts so often do. Otherwise, the premise stayed pretty close to home.

Debuting in 1996, Raymond struggled for attention in its 8:30 PM Friday time slot. Not only did the show have a weak lead-in from Dave’s World, but its mature viewpoint wasn’t the typical cute-kids-and-teen-witches Friday fodder. The show began to find its audience after moving to Mondays at 8:30 P.M., but even by its second season, Raymond rarely made the tope 20. Romano says only recently has he even been recognized on the Warner Bros. Studio lot, and he isn’t joking.

A long way from Queens, today the Romanos live in a Spanish-style home on a quiet street in Tarzana, a Los Angeles suburb. Their home is sizable (five Bedrooms, three-car garage, pool, tennis court) but not opulent by Hollywood standards. As a nanny fusses over baby Joe, twins Matthew and Gregory bike around the backyard and Alexandra watches Nickelodeon.

“It used to be that I would be home all day and go out [to work] at night,” Romano says. “The time I spent with them was constant. Now I go for five to six days and see my son for 20 minutes a day.

“It’s tough on Anna,” he continues. “She has to handle everything with the kids.” When asked how much TV the children are permitted to watch, Romano bounces the question to Anna, the expert, whose exasperated stare would be recognized by any mother with four youngsters. “Forty-five minutes to eight hours,” Ray says, not missing a beat, and just as quickly, Anna cracks up laughing.

Domestic tension broken by humor. Sound familiar? On the Raymond set, Heaton, Romano’s TV wife, says people often want to know how she prepares for a show. The actress, who last month gave birth to her fourth child, son Daniel Patrick, responds, “I just go home.” Or as producer Rosenthal says, as long as the cast and writers have families, Raymond has stories.

How’s this, then, for a future episode? The Barone clan is having breakfast at the neighborhood International House of Pancakes when Ray’s father, Frank, starts picking through the restaurant’s trash to retrieve a redeemable bottle. “There’s a nickel right there,” Dad says loudly. “Somebody’s thrown away a nickel.”

Yes, it really happened. “But I was lucky,” Romano says. “Nobody recognized me.”

That particular kind of luck might not hold out much longer.