I didn’t make it to Circo’s last night, last night, and that’s probably for the best.
Between the memories, the nostalgia and twinges of bitterness, watching the old girl take her last breath would’ve been too much for a person of my delicate constitution to handle. Knowing my feelings for the place, what could’ve been an evening of fond farewells was destined to end with me even sadder than I am right now as I write these words. So I stayed away.
I also stayed away because what happened last night was the end of an era — an era the beginning of which no other food writer in this town attended, or is even aware.
You see, none of them, not Max, not Heidi Knapp Rinella, not Al Mancini (and no Yelpers) were there at the beginning. But I was. And Circo was the beginning. And the beginning was October 15, 1998.
Sure, before Circo there was Spago (opened December, 11, 1992), and Emeril and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe and Charlie Trotter. They were all pioneers of our restaurant revolution. The mountain men who headed west (well, east in Spago’s case) and saw gold in them thar hills before the world caught the fever. But October 15, 1998 was when the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave and the whole world felt the shudder.
We sat in the far right corner, next to the window looking out at the Bellagio fountains. I think I was happily married at the time, but was soon not to be, so that doesn’t matter. What mattered was this was a real Italian restaurant; a Tuscan Italian restaurant, run by Italian restaurant nobility (the Maccionis), with a fun bar and a great wine list; the whole package under one, colorful, circus-themed, Adam Tihany-designed, roof.
It was a like a tasty slice of mid-town Manhattan had parked itself right in my back yard, and I was beaming from ear to ear as I sampled what seemed like half the menu.
Then and now I considered it one of the best designed restaurants I had ever been in. Wraparound windows looking onto the Bellagio “lake,” a bar neither too big nor too small, a comfy waiting area, classy little banquet room and, best of all, restrooms IN the restaurant. (People forget that, until Steve Wynn did so with the Big B, none of the restaurants in Las Vegas’s main hotels had bathrooms in them.)
And these weren’t just government-issue toilets like you found in every other hotel; these were Adam-Tihany-designed bathrooms with the decor of the restaurant incorporated into their look, using lots of marble and real, thick cotton hand towels like you get in real cities. (I think I was as jazzed about the bathroom situation as I was about the food on that first day.)
(Circo wasn’t the only beautifully designed restaurant at the Bellagio. From Michael DeSantis’s Prime to Jasmine to Picasso to the jewel box that is Le Cirque — also done by Tihany — this hotel ‘s murderer’s row of restaurants set the template for many hotels to follow…and fail to emulate. Wynn loves to gasbag on and on about how Wynn/Encore is his crowning achievement, but the Bellagio is/was his masterpiece, and deep down he knows it.)
Lunch that day was a three-hour affair, and many more soon followed. I took colleagues there, friends there, clients there, my parents and even a few dates* once that marriage fell apart. Sometime around when Bill Clinton was ejaculating on Monica Lewinsky’s dress, they stopped charging me, but up until then, there were dozens of visits and thousands of dollars spent in the joint.
I first sang Circo’s praises on November 26, 1998 on KNPR, and within two months of its opening, my family and friends were considering having me enter a 12-step program because of my addiction to it and its restaurant brethren.
Two and a half years after the opening, I publicly mourned the tragic, premature death of its first chef — Enzino Secci — and was crestfallen when, in the aftermath of 9/11, they decided to permanently discontinue lunch. I remember feeling as if a friend had died on both occasions, because they had.
Regardless, there was always the food. Mama Egi’s family classics were the backbone of the menu: ravioli with sheep’s milk ricotta and butter-sage sauce, Pici Toscani (hand-rolled thick spaghetti with a true Bolognese), rack of lamb crusted with Pecorino cheese, Caciucco Toscano (fisherman’s stew), mascarpone polenta) — a single bite of which told you you were no longer in (lousy) lasagna land.
Before you got to them, though, there was the bread. Good bathrooms weren’t the only trail blazed by the Bellagio. Now, we all take good bread for granted, but sixteen years ago, locating good bread in Vegas was harder than finding a stripper who would take a check. A real breadbasket full of grissini, crusty bread and chewy rolls straight from an oven was unheard of. From the first bite (from that very first breadbasket) we knew a revolution had taken place.
All of it was a testament to the talent and standards of the Maccioni clan, and the vision of Wynn and his executives who wanted to change the game and had the good taste to do so.
Circo made us grow up as a restaurant city. It brought big-city sophistication, and sophisticated Italian food, to a town sorely in need of both. No longer would Las Vegas not be taken seriously as a food town. So did I predict after those very first bites, and so did it come to pass.
My ardor cooled a bit over the past dozen years. I’ve never quite recovered from the body blow of losing my very own, first class, white tablecloth dining room for lunch. But increased competition also had a lot to do with it. Being a pioneer, setting a trend and raising the bar are all applicable clichés, but once the die was cast, it was hard to stem the tidal wave of copycats and wannabes from swamping these desert shores…and grabbing a piece of our tourist-food- dollar-pie in the process.**
Over the past few years, I pretty much quit going to Circo altogether. Between the economic downturn, rotating chefs, and the sense that the corporate parent was milking the old cow for all she’s worth, it hardly seemed worth the effort…or the calories. And once the Bellagio severed ties with the Maccioni family (and big brother Mario left town), the magic was gone. Our last meal there of a year or so ago, was decent enough, but it was obvious the staff was playing out the string.
Rather than dwell on how far the mighty had fallen, we preferred to stay away last night and remember all the good things: Mario, Sirio and Egi nervously sitting at the front tables, watching the staff like a hawk; kibbitzing with Mauro and Marco when they were in town; Antonello Paganuzzi, Greg Jarmolowich and Lesley Terborg running the front of the house like a fine-tuned watch; Enzino in the kitchen; Paolo Barbieri, Jaime Smith and Patrick Pretz teaching our palates and blowing our minds with undiscovered, massive, dirty-earthy wines; Noe; Amy Rosetti; bartenders who always knew your name; all that great Tuscan food; and one or two waitresses whom I would’ve loved to ask out (post-divorce) if I hadn’t been so old, and they hadn’t been so married.
That’s how I’ll always remember Osteria del Circo….and why I couldn’t go last night.
But it was something to behold on October 15, 1998. You really should have been there.
* One was with a high-maintenance, full-of-herself female lawyer (is there any other kind?) who complained to me: “The service isn’t very good here, is it?” within 90 seconds of being handed a menu.
** ELV defies you to mix more (bad) metaphors in one sentence than this.