By E.C. Gladstone
Vegas has long had a healthy Italian population, so naturally it has always had more than a fair share of Cucina Italiano. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it had good Italian food. It wasn’t until the arrival ten years ago of Valentino (Venetian), Circo (Bellagio) and others that Las Vegas hotels began offering truly elegant, inspired, Italian food with gourmet ingredients.
Now, fancy fritto mistos are everywhere you turn, but to be frank, all are far from equal. Your intrepid blogger set out to try them all, but to be honest — at a certain point, I had to cry uncle and let a few pass (based on other reliable reviewers, I don’t think I missed much). Of the top four here, each has so many strengths that I’d strongly recommend all. From there, there are some with particular strengths, and for the more adventuresome, a list of some well-regarded local places.
10. Rao’s , Caesars Palace
A spinoff of the New York legend that is four times the size (and sports a cool bocce court on the patio), Rao’s offers old-school atmosphere and recipes to match. Their meatball in San Marzano sauce is the near-equal of Martarano’s (see below), they do several nice shrimp dishes, a wonderful octopus salad and canellini-escarole soup, and a good Pollo Scarpariello (I prefer it to their “famous” lemon chicken). But presentations are indifferent and other items uninspiring.
9. Penazzi, Harrah’s
Like their Range steakhouse, Harrah’s Penazzi is an unheralded diamond-in-the-rough. In a pleasant sunken dining room overseen by the namesake gourmand himself — a Genoan — and his Siciliano chef, Penazzi offers a decadent crab, provolone and truffle oil-filled Portobello, nice imported Burrata cheese, a plate-cleaning pesto gnocchi, perfectly piquant Grouper Francese with batter that just accents the fish’s natural flavor, and some solidly rustic lamb. Extra credit for a soundtrack of Italian arias here, not “hurry-up-and-hop” trance-lounge. Their creole-fusion oyster bar also offers great fried clams and more.
8. Sinatra, Encore
Though this set-piece modern room bears no relation to the classic Hoboken/North Jersey joints that nourished Ol’ Blue Eyes, it’s certainly one of the prettiest places to eat pasta in town. Ex-Patina (LA) chef Theo Schoenegger offers an artful selection of pan-Italian dishes that is occasionally inspired (the buttery-firm handmade spaghetti Chitarra) and consistent in quality — but not exactly value-priced. And while it’s hard to sniff at a soundtrack of Sinatra, the playlist when I visited was certainly indifferently selected (a quibble). The elegant, European bar is a worthy destination of its own.
7. The Grotto, Golden Nugget
You wouldn’t expect much from this open-walled chain concept in between this Las Vegas hotel’s casino and pool, but the Grotto does a number of things surprisingly well, and with an attention to quality that rivals the fancy lads. The egg-battered calamari toto is light but full flavored, some of the best octopus I’ve had in the U.S.…the roasted herb chicken, a half-bird rotisseried with rosemary over white oak is nothing less than tender, savory perfection…. the meatballs come two near-baseballs to an order, a thin crust protecting the piping hot, almost pate-soft inside (which they claim is all flavorful beef chuck, though you’ll suspect more tender veal) in a garlicky sweet marinara. And their New York Cheesecake, shockingly, deserves that name. Open for lunch, and for good pizza late nights.
6. Ago, Hard Rock Hotel
This branch of the fancy chain co-owned by Robert DeNiro was more hype than hot until the recent installation of Sardinian James Beard award-winning Chef Marco Porceddu. As ambitious as they come, Porceddu balances his desire to serve sea urchin and authentic foccacia with visitors’ more pedestrian quests for the best meatball (his are 100% veal, btw) and wood-fired pizzas. They also wood fire the beef and rib-eye here and serve a very nice grilled calamari plate — but what’s outstanding are Porceddu’s creative pastas. I tried some pig’s ear-sized wild mushroom ravioli and gnocchi with gorgeous duck confit I’m still swooning over. The wine list isn’t massive but has some interesting choices, including many half-bottles. Save room for the raw cheesecake too.
5. Stratta, Wynn
Internationally admired Chef Allessandro “Alex” Stratta’s destination dining room at Wynn continues to top lists of best culinary experiences on the Strip. But when he was tapped to take over the former Corsa Cucina in the casino, the mandate was “keep it simple.” So Stratta unearthed his favorite family recipes — updating them with top ingredients — simplified some others from Alex, and added a great selection of creative wood-fired pizzas (almost all of those listed here have respectable pizzas, actually). Gorgeous pastas (I pine for the butternut squash ravioli at least once a week), fresh seafoods (loved the scallops), and enough variety in starters to create a light meal or multi-course feast. Open very late.
4. Fiamma Trattoria, MGM Grand
Though its name implies “casual,” Fiamma — an outpost of the now-departed NYC original — is actually a sexy, chic warren of rooms that would impress any guest. Chef Carlos Buscaglia presents dishes either elegant or rustic, depending on ingredients and inspiration, giving an experience that never dulls. Campania bufala mozzerella is served with three heirloom tomato varieties, gnocchi with whole-shelled Maine lobster claws in truffle sauce is a creamy, savory seduction, golf-ball sized kobe meatballs in San Marzano sauce are tender, sweet and light. And the Piemontese short ribs are so tender they’re served with a spoon (short rib raviolini are also addictive)! A rare Strip spot that locals regularly single out.
3. Valentino/The Grill at Valentino, Venetian
For ten years, the estimable Valentino has been under the supervision of one dedicated Beard-awarded chef, Luciano Pellegrini, a master of gorgeous presentation as well as flavor. His dishes, like sturgeon carpaccio, lobster “purses” (a breathtaking ravoli presentation), and lollipopped lamb chops — the best I’ve had in Vegas, bar none — actually are better the original legendary Valentino in Los Angeles! Desserts are equally impressive here, and the restaurant is well known for its expansive wine list. Their front Grill room also produces excellent casual classics like seafood bisque and spinach-ricotta capellini that don’t skimp in any respect. Still, after all these years, Pellegrini finally has some real competition in town; it might be time for him reinvent the wheel one more time.
2. Lupo, Mandalay Bay
Surprise! Wolfgang Puck’s formerly casual trattoria by the casino’s parking lot transformed itself earlier this year into an elegant (but unstuffy) white tablecloth room with an open kitchen under chef Eduardo Perez, that is clearly bent on making an impression. Proscuitto-fig and caprese starters are both accompanied by excellent fresh burrata and mozzerella. House-made pastas are presented with finishing touches like real guanciale (pig cheek), tomato concasse, and chaterelle mushrooms. Steamed clams, sauted blue prawns, roasted halibut, kurabota pork two ways, lamb sirloin — all are given complex but elegant presentations. If there’s a weak spot on this menu, I couldn’t find it. And they do VIP tasting menus by request, a fun option.
1. Nove Italiano, Palms
Am I really saying this quasi-clubby hotty hangout is the best Italian in all the Las Vegas hotels? Well, for overall experience, I am — and I admit being surprised myself. The room may appear like a Stargate interpretation of renaissance Italy: classic paintings digitally displayed, sexy faux topiary, gas flames instead of real fireplaces, etc. But Chef Geno Bernardo offers a menu of creatively-spun classics that never disappoints, from light, lemony toro crudo and rustic grilled porcini and fennel salad to a gorgeous signature seafood spaghetti (half white, half squid-ink black), great branzino, lamb chops, scallop risotto and perfect gnocchi. And I mean perfect (not an easy accomplishment). Model-like sommelier Anu Hawkins is deceptively knowledgeable; trust her for great wine pairings. And finish with the strawberry carpaccio.
And furthermore: I didn’t include specialty restaurants like the seafood-centric Bartolotta (Wynn) or meatfest Carnevino (Palazzo), both fine destinations. Other well-regarded Italian restaurants on the Strip include Circo (Bellagio), Zefferino, Canaletto, Enoteca San Marco and B&B (all at Venetian), Il Mulino (Forum Shops at Caesars), Cafe Giorgio (Mandalay Place), Il Fornaio (New York New York) and the “legendary” Battistas (behind Bill’s on Flamingo Road).
Off-Strip, locals frequently recommend Mimmo Ferraros (also coming to Paradise Road across from the Hard Rock), Nora’s, Capo’s, Casa Di Amore, Chicago Joe’s, Panevino, Tinoco’s (Vegas Club, downtown) and Settebello.
Veteran entertainment and travel writer E. C. Gladstone writes regularly for Las Vegas Magazine and the Las Vegas Weekly, also interviewing top Strip entertainers, restauranteurs, moguls and behind-the-scenes players for other local and national publications and websites. Like many Las Vegans, he sleeps only when absolutely necessary.