PIZZERIA MONZU

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Las Vegas upped its pizza game considerably over the past decade, but it wasn’t until Pizzeria Monzú opened this year that it had a true, Sicilian superstar. It’s something of an insult that food this good is located right behind an Arby’s, but there it is  — in a strip mall that’s seen better days — beckoning like no other Italian in town. Sicilian restaurant scion Giò Mauro (of Nora’s family fame), took over the space of the old Nora’s (the new one is now a block away), and expanded and modernized it. What was once an old school, Italian-American, now reeks of wood smoke, craft cocktails and foodie cred.

The room is big, bright and airy; the tables are comfortable and well-spaced. High ceilings keep the noise level down to conversational levels, and a small stage off to one side gives you a hint that live entertainment will be in the offing.* Those wanting upscale spritzers, and gorgeous (all-Italian) wines by the glass will not be disappointed. Those wanting to imbibe some serious beer, and wines by the bottle, will sit up and take notice.  Twelve brews on draft are offered, ranging from local IPAs to Michigan brown ales, and the wine list is a dream come true — dozens of modestly-priced vintages from up and down the Italian peninsula, all with brief, pithy descriptions of what you’re getting. It might be the best short wine list in all of Vegas.

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Once you’re seated, get the appetizers, all of them: squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and mint, ascolane (sausage-stuffed) olives (above), stuffed chicken wings, agrodolce (sweet and sour) meatballs, and the brightest of all in this galaxy of six stars, the “stuffed lemon leaves” (below), which aren’t as much stuffed as they are skewered and grilled in leafy envelopes. Each order is enough for four, and a table full of these plates makes a meal unto itself.

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If you insist, the salumi and fromaggi antipasti are also a good place to start, as Mauro is justifiably proud of his meats and cheeses, and the bruschette (whether plain or speckled with roasted garlic and anchovies, Sicilian-style), will satisfy as well. The only problem with all of these is if you fill up too fast and you won’t have room for the main event: pizza alla pala. As big as a small desk and easily feeding 4-6 hungry adults, these big boys come in all sorts of combos.

We’re partial to the the “Simple” (crushed tomatoes, basil and mozzarella), but the “Regina Margherita” (above) gets a deeper sweetness from cherry tomatoes, and a certain tang (from buffalo mozz) that is as far from your average slice as the Godfather II is from Sharknado. No matter which one you get (and some of the combos like “Pork Reigns” and “Vegas Meets Italy” are a tad overloaded for our tastes), you can’t help but notice the chewy, tangy, dense and satisfying bread providing the foundation. This is serious stuff — long fermented dough, from an ancient starter, that shines on its own. ‘Tis almost a pity to cover up this toothsome crumb with bacon, goat cheese and arugula (Apricot) or Gorgonzola, walnuts and honey (‘Nduja), but if you do, you’ll still find yourself fighting your table-mates for the last slice.

I am told that the large proteins offered here — a “Polpettone” (giant meatball), grilled swordfish, and a 34 oz. rib eye “Fiorentina” — are wonderful, but I’m always too busy grooving on the pizza to notice. The one I’ve had — crespelle al forno  (baked lasagna with meat sauce) — was a meaty, cheesy, béchamel-topped delight.

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Anyone who doesn’t order Sfgini di San Giuseppe – fist-sized Sicilian doughnuts (above) filled with sweetened ricotta — should be consigned to sleep with the fishes.

(Dinner for four, with a few drinks, all those appetizers, a big pizza and dessert will run around $191.95….exactly what I paid for it.)

PIZZERIA MONZÚ

6020 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.749.5959

http://monzulv.com/index.html

* No one hates music more in restaurants than I do. Music in restaurants ruins both the music and the food. But when Gio Mauro takes the stage to belt out some opera (he’s classically trained) or an old standard, it all seems to fit, and I don’t mind it a bit.

Getting It and Not Getting It

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When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best to inhabit a precise financial spot — one should have enough money to pay the tariff, but not so much that he is indifferent to the size of the bill. This is so because modest deprivation leads to experimentation. A rich man never has to choose between an inexpensive main course (braised beef heart for example) paired with a good bottle of wine and a pricier main course with a rather middling bottle; he will simply order the best of everything and in so doing will never know whether he likes beef heart or not. – A. J. Leibling

Item: I have friends who go to Italy all the time, have traveled all over the country, and love to return with tales of white truffle hunts and very special meals — meals where they always meet the chef, and he was “just divine,” and “John, you have to go and we’ll put you in touch, and it will be the best meal you’ve ever had in Rome, Venice, Palermo….” whatever. Within days of returning from one of their trips, they can look me straight in the eye and suggest we go out for some red sauce slop at some terrible local Italian because, and they say this with a straight face, “We really like the food there.”

Item: Dearly departed Robin Leach, who had chefs and sommeliers bowing before him for forty years, always preferred the cheapest, shittiest sauvignon blanc on any wine list.

Item: I recently went to Raku with some folks who raved about the food. (They were not Raku rookies, and we must’ve parked the entire menu on our table.) During our meal, they told me I had  to go to their “favorite place for Japanese” which will “blow me away.” We did go a couple of weeks later and it turned out to be a mediocre sushi bar/Japanese restaurant, that is no different from dozens of other cookie-cutter, Korean-owned, Japanese joints in town. (At the rematch, many of the inventive dishes fell flat and the fish was merely okay. That didn’t keep the price for our omakase from being through the roof.)

Item: I’m friendly with a local mogul who has bucks deluxe — travels to Europe all the time, rents houses for a month in Tuscany, islands in the Mediterranean, hobnobs with chefs, had his wedding in Rome, etc — you know, the usual for a guy scraping by on a couple of mil a year. This guy loves to hold court at one of the oldest, lousiest Italian restaurants in Vegas. Garlic City, I called it. So pungent you can smell it a block away. I ran into him there one time (after losing a bet), and he was beaming at a table filled with his business associates. “John, John! Come over here! Let me introduce you.” After telling everyone what I do as a food writer and joking around for a minute, he pulls me down to him and whispers, “Isn’t the food here great?” To which I replied, “Well, there’s certainly a lot of it.”

Do you know what all of these people have all have in common?

They don’t get it. Never have and never will. No matter how many trips to Europe they take, or so-so sushi meals they have, they are constitutionally incapable of making discerning judgments about food.

Getting it isn’t hard. Anyone can get it, but you have to want to.

Frenchmen think they get it simply by virtue of their being French.

As Joël Robuchon so aptly put it:

Only a small number of French possess refined palates. The French believe they have innate knowledge in the gastronomic domain as in the domain of wines. Whereas nothing is further from the truth. The Japanese (and Swiss for example) show real curiosity; they are very attentive in trying to understand and taste what they are served. That is what refinement is.

New Yorkers think they get pizza, simply because they grew up around a lot of crappy street slices. (Just ask pizza maven John Arena sometime about how often he’s heard the words, “I’m from New York; I know pizza.”)

Los Angelenos think they know tacos.

Bostonians brag about knowing good chowda.

All of them do this because everyone wants to think that they get it — in the same way everyone wants to think they have good taste in clothes or music. (And we all know what we like, so what we like has to be good, right?)

I know my friends above will never get it. Because they all have too much money and they all think having that money gives them discernment….when all it really does is make them lazy.

To truly get it (be it in food, wine, fashion or whatever) you have to, 1) want to get it; and 2) work at getting it. And by “work at getting it” I mean you have to think about things, rather than just constantly pat yourself on the back about how good you’ve got it.

I’m reminded of some rich clients I used to have when I was in private practice. They knew I was into wine and were always asking me what I liked. “Do you prefer Nuits-Saint-Georges or Volnay?” they would ask. “Which vintage should I buy, ‘o5 or ‘o6? Are you a bigger fan of Dujac or Remoissenet?” After dozens of these inquisitions (and precious little sips from their cellars), it became clear they weren’t interested in actually experiencing the pleasure of wine as much as acquiring information about it — for investment or showing off or whatever. There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, and they didn’t give two shits about acquiring the latter. (For the record, my answers were: It depends. lay down your ‘o5s, drink the ‘o6s, and either one if you’re pouring.)

Getting it involves passion and study, not just purse. Getting it involves asking a lot of questions, while acknowledging (and remaining comfortable with) how little you know. The reason rich people never get it is because they’d have to admit how stupid they are about the subject at hand. It’s so much easier just to spend a lot and then feel good about your good taste.

Getting it involves insatiable curiosity.

Getting it means being willing to admit your ignorance. All successful people hate to admit they don’t know something — doctors especially so — which is why they’re always pretending to be much smarter than they are.

Not getting it is like listening to  Boccherini and then stating you prefer Death Cab For Cutie.

A lot of people like the idea of getting it much more than the real thing….just as they like the idea of wine much more than the actual product. Tons of people these days (and seemingly every Millennial on the planet) loves the idea of being a foodie, without really wanting to put in the work.

So, you have to ask yourself dear reader: Do you get it or do you just want to pretend you get it?

Are you the type who knows why Raku is so great and its competitors fall so short? Do you actually think about why a wine is good when you sip it? Or do you just remind yourself that it has to be good for the money you paid? And if you’re a younger foodie out there (or a blogger or Yelper), do you base your judgments upon what you know or what you like?

Like I said, there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.

And if you’re one of those rich folks, well, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it….but you have to stop using your money as a crutch.

I’m sure there are lots of astute, discriminating gourmets out there who are very wealthy.

I’m just not sure they exist in Las Vegas.

Let’s give Joël the last word on this:

This might surprise you, but the number of those who possess real knowledge and have refined palates is extremely limited. And it has nothing to do with social class. Indeed, people from all stations come to my place, and the least wealthy are far from the least knowledgeable.

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas…and Paella! (Part 3)

Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar is a small plates purveyor of a different stripe. Where Pamplona shoots and scores with authentic, Madrid-style tapas, and Edo gives an updated spin to their Spanish classics, MBWB takes the tapas thing in several different directions. And those directions have as much to do with wine as it does with shareable food. The good news is both are pretty nifty.

What confronts you when you enter is a long, in-laid, colorful three-sided bar. Very L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon that. This counter represents latest manifestation of the side-by-side dining that has been all the rage since Robuchon made such a splash with it in Paris in 2003. Grownups may find it a tad awkward, and for us there’s a couple of high-boy tables in one corner where 4-6 people can actually talk without leaning in and out with every sentence. Hearing is another matter, as you’ll see below.

Once you get comfortable (and to their credit, the staff here puts everyone at ease), you will observe the hustle and bustle behind that bar, as well as the refrigerated wine racks, and all sorts of people moving to and fro, taking orders, mixing drinks, pouring wines, and delivering plates.  It’s really quite a scene, but only three months into its run, the staff and kitchen seem well-synchronized. If you score one of those tables, don’t expect to hear any whispered sweet nothings from your dearly beloved though, as that would require a bullhorn over the din. (In this regard, side-by-side seating makes a lot of sense.)

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If the term “wine bar” in the name doesn’t give you an idea what this place is all about, then the two-sided list will. It’s compact — five whites, six reds, some sake, several sherries — but (almost) everything is price to sell. Strip wine maven/veteran Luis de Santos (pictured above) co-owns and runs the libations side of things, and he has tailored his list to go with the food, but also to be quaffed and enjoyed, not pondered and discussed.

The whole point is to try a couple of bottles with your food, and when you can get a pretty Clarete rosé from Rioja for only $34, and tempranillo-syrah for the same price, there’s no reason not to try both. (Those are bottle prices, not the by-the-glass gouges you find on The Strip.) You almost get the feeling that he and chef/owner Khai Vu are testing the waters with these wines, as they try out which ones, at what price point, will appeal to their customers. Something tells me the offerings will expand as this place gains its footing, and every bottle won’t always be in the $30-$50 range. But for the time being, everything is quite a bargain. Even the beer.

Tasty, inexpensive wine may be what brought you through the door, but the food is what will keep you here.

Here, you’re just as likely to find a Mexican-inspired elote corn skewer, and snow pea leaves with garlic, ginger and sake, as you are a satisfying fingerling patatas bravas. This all-over-the-map menu has them all, and by and large, you won’t be disappointed. The Lomi Lomi Ocean Trout (pictured above) can only be described as zesty. It may be the best ceviche you’ve ever had in Vegas. Right beside it on the ceviche list are a classic, Mexican shrimp aguachile, and Maine lobster with mango salsa, and they’re no slouches, either.

Just as enthralling as all that sparkling seafood is The Cloud — thin, and we mean really thin, slices of Iberico de Bellota Cinco Jotas on top of a super thin, almost invisibly crispy chicharrónes :

— as perfect a nibble with a glass of verdejo as has ever been invented.

They do something they call Beet Garden here — red and golden beets with a goat cheese mousse — that is as wine-friendly (and pretty) as any root veggie dish can get:

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The meaty king crab leg (at $38, the most expensive thing on the menu, but not the most photogenic) is crabby enough for two, and the cold, briny oysters, and ginormous Nigerian prawn (below) show they’re also serious about their seafood:

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Other winners include a meaty La Asada (grilled Angus skirt steak with some kick-ass chimichurri sauce), and a stew of clams, chorizo, and mussels (pictured above with the prawn) that has quite a kick of its own (from the white wine/sriracha sauce).

Desserts are only two in number (and always in flux), but if this mango rice pudding (made to look like a fried egg) is offered, don’t miss it:

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You’ll have no complaints about the flan, either, but when was the last time you complained about a flan?

Too many many modern restaurants, in their endless attempts to mash up American food into with every cuisine on the planet, try too hard to dazzle you with their footwork at the expense of harmony and balance. There is both ingenuity and restraint in these dishes, which is rare these days. While it’s easy to decry the menu’s lack of focus, the wild ride you take among these flavors captivates your palate without ever wearing it out.

If you squint a little you’ll see a lot of similarities to what Edo is doing just down the street. But whereas Oscar Edo keeps his eye on Spain, Khai Vu let’s his wander a little farther, and tosses in everything from Mexico to the Japanese/Chinese kitchen sink. That he does this without ever going a seasoning too far is quite extraordinary. Mordeo, like its competition, may have hit on just the right formula to drive complacent palates down to Spring Mountain Road: interesting, hand-tooled, strongly-seasoned, wine-friendly food. The kind of food Las Vegas has needed since I moved here in 1981. The kind you can now find in three restaurants (Pamplona, Edo and Mordeo) all within a couple of miles of each other.

(Dinner for two, with a few drinks, or a bottle of modestly-priced wine, should run around $100/couple, excluding tip.)

MORDEO BOUTIQUE WINE BAR

5420 Spring Mountain Road #108

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.545.0771

https://www.mordeolv.com/