A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099

 

 

The Cars I Have Owned – with commentary

Hey Wally, when did you learn so much about cars?

Gosh Beav, don’t you know as soon as a guy turns 16, he automatically knows everything about cars.

(Leave It To Beaver, 1957-1963)

I never got the “car bug.” Not in a big way, anyway. Had slot cars as a pre-teen (although our cars didn’t go NEARLY this fast) and loved them. Around 15, I tried to get into all the arcane differences between The Judge GTO and a blown 426 hemi , but I never really “got it.”

I even remember pouring over Car & Driver and Road & Track mags (with my best friend Tom Gandy) like they were engineering porn. (This was a year or so before girls’ breasts became the only headlights of real interest.)

The thing was, I never really understood a 4-barrel carburetor, and didn’t care to learn. I faked my way through a few years of high school pretending to be like Wally Cleaver debating the merits of STP (remember Andy Granatelli?) radial tires or Hurst shifters, but fundamentally, I knew I was out of my league with the guys (like Tom and my brother Brett) who really loved deciphering what was going on (good or bad) under one of those giant metal hoods.

Image result for 1969 XKE

Funny thing though, even though I’m a mechanical bozo, cars always did fascinate me. I love the look of a vintage Corvette (yep, my dad even owned one at one time), and remember the thrill of working through the gears of the  XKE Jag the old man brought home for an entire weekend test drive. (Do they still do THAT anymore?) He bought the Vette instead.

My mother’s 1970 Chrysler Imperial was the Queen Mary on wheels, and I loved everything about it, too, from the insane oversteer, to the 8-track tape deck.

Image result for lowrider art

Another oddball admission: I love the  SoCal Mexican-American/Chicanx car culture, and consider it one of the most thoroughly American forms of artistic expression. I am constitutionally incapable of seeing a lowrider without being awestruck by all their religious, cross-cultural and candy-colored majesty.  I look as out of place as a hillbilly in a synagogue when I’m walking among them, but to me, a Chicano car convention is as interesting as the Louvre.

So, I guess I’m conflicted about automobiles. I know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to call myself a car lover or “enthusiast.” But I’ve never cared enough to attach much importance to the ones I’ve owned. And I still wouldn’t know a four-barrel carb if it bit me on my manifold.

THE CARS I HAVE OWNED:

The  60s

Image result for 1970 AMC Javelin

1969 JAVELIN 3-speed manual – bought brand new for me by my folks — similar, but not as racy as the one above. I thought I was quite the stud in high school when I drove it. Totaled by my brother within months of me going off to college. The first car I had sex in. On December 31, 1969, if anyone’s interested.

The 70s

FIAT 128 (Fix It Again Tony) – (Pictured at top of page as I was about to drive it from Winter Park, Florida to Danbury, Connecticut, in August, 1972.) l loved my little Fiat…I loved it even though it was about as reliable as a slot junkie with a drug problem. I loved it even after it caught on fire, in the middle of the night, on a freeway, at 70 mph, with my wife and baby inside. I think I had sex with my first ex-wife (pre-baby) in this car at a drive-in movie theater. As usual with sex in cars, it was an awkward but totally satisfying three minutes of my life.
Image result for 1963 Cadillac sedan de ville
CADILLAC Sedan de Ville – 1963 powder blue – totaled by an old fart who drove into it while it was parked on a street while I was in a library studying for law exams. (This is a recurring theme in my life with cars, as you’ll see below.) Sold for junk for $500 – and I had to drive it seven miles in first gear (top speed: 10 mph) to get it to the junkyard. You could’ve had sex with 15 people in the back of this beast, but alas, I was too busy with law school.

Absolutely shitty 1971 CHEVY Truck – the body literally was decomposing as you drove it. No sex. Not in the truck anyway.

Even shittier 1969 pale green FORD Galaxy 500 sedan – nicknamed “Lurch”, since you could read War and Peace between the time you pressed on the accelerator and it staggered forward.
The 80s

DATSUN Maxima Diesel – solid car, engine sounded like a hamster on a flywheel with a 3 pound bucket of bolts. Generic Japanese but reliable.
Image result for 1984 Peugeot
PEUGEOT 1985 505 – best car I ever owned (above) – light in the ass but handled great, also had the most comfortable seats ever. The car in which I drove baby Hugh – #2 son Alex Curtas – home from the hospital.)

PEUGEOT 505 Station Wagon – lost in a divorce (sigh). For what this ex- had to put up with, she deserved more than just a car.
The 90s

Some big ass MERCURY sedan that looked like a cop car and handled like a tank that I took off my partner’s hands because I couldn’t afford anything during the aforementioned divorce. Nailed in a parking lot where I was either grocery shopping or trolling for sex in a nearby tavern (forgot which). Whatever….the repairs weren’t worth it so traded it in for a…

Dark brown MERCURY Cougar – WTF was it with me and Mercurys in the early 90s? Was the color of shit. Looked like shit, drove like shit, too. The doors were the size of an airplane wing and took a weightlifter to open. Still remember chopping cocaine on the console with whatever bimbo-du-jour I was dating back then.

VOLKSWAGEN Passat – bright red, sorta cool and very quick, all I remember about it was the automatic seat belts, and I thought I was hot shit for the three years I drove it. (I wasn’t.) Memories are vague of front-seat diddling with some den mother of my son’s Cub Scout troop who was cheating on her husband. Good times.
Image result for 1996 Chrysler Sebring
Some 2-door, 2-tone, low-profile, piece-of-shit CHRYSLER Sebring  that pretended to be a sports car but wasn’t (the closest I ever got to a car as a penile extender). This is the car I was driving when I went through my last divorce and partied like a rock star for a couple of years. No sex in it that I can recall, which is odd since I would’ve had sex with a mailbox in 1999.
The 2000s

CADILLAC Catera – nice when it worked; heavy small sedan; went through 5 batteries in 4 years. The Food Gal® and I had some great early necking sessions in the front seat, but I don’t think we ever drifted into horizontal mambo territory.

ACURA – the early Acuras (late 80s to early 2000s) were almost perfect cars…then they started making them in America. Hit in parking lot without me in car, minor damage. My 94 year old mother is still driving her 1990 Acura Legend (below).
Image result for 1990 Acura legend

ACURA – rear-ended once…with me in the car, minor damage;
great for first 3 years; once it hit 36,000 miles everything started falling apart (overheated, brakes, fuel pump). Actual, driving proof of how much better Japanese cars were when they were made in Japan, not Alabama. Creamed in a parking lot while I was getting a pizza….sold to CarMax for $4,000.

HYUNDAI – 4-door generic sedan with all the sex appeal of Tilda Swinton – sold to CarMax 3 years ago for what I paid for it.
The Tally Sheet
50 years of driving
15 cars
1 speeding ticket (in 2014)
2 fender benders (one my fault, bumped a car in front of me, while depressed/stressed out over pending divorce – wrote him a check on the spot)
3 cars creamed while parked
4 sexmobiles, maybe more
Drunk drivings avoided? Too numerous to count.
(There’s an old saying in the law: The only people who’ve never driven drunk are those who either don’t drive, or don’t drink. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but imbibing to excess was a semi-regular thing for me in my 20s-40s – like it is for a lot of people. How I never got busted for being over the limit is a miracle, or just dumb luck. Either way, my drinking and driving days are in the rear view mirror.)
I haven’t owned a car in three years. Don’t anticipate ever buying another one. These days, I walk or LYFT it everywhere. Work is 2.4 miles from my house and I spend between $100-$200/month on LYFT rides. Even with that, The Food Gal® calculates a savings over around $6,000/year over what a car was costing us. Do I bank those savings? Hell no. (Remember: I’m the guy who used to chop lines of drugs on his dashboard. I may have grown up, but I’m still a sybarite at heart.) These days, I use the money to buy wine and plane tickets to Europe — much more fun and less overall aggravation…not to mention paranoia.
Do I miss having a huge, planet-killing hulk of a machine taking up space in a garage for 90% of its life? Sometimes. Cars are convenience; cars are freedom,  whether for a jaunt to the store, or cheating on your spouse. But they’re expensive, time consuming and wasteful, and our planet can no longer afford them.
Cars can also be beautiful feats of engineering. But most of all, cars are fun, to drive, and..ahem…to do other things in.
But they’re also ecological nightmares, so it’s time we figured out another way to get where we’re going — whether it’s getting to work, getting the groceries, or getting your rocks off.
Take us home, Lou:

The List

(Lamaii)

Every few months we publish “The List” for two reasons: 1) to keep a constant update of our research for the next EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants edition; and 2) to brag to you, our loyal readers, about how we eat in more restaurants, more often, than anyone in Las Vegas — now or in the history of our humble burg.

This list is a bit incredible, even by our trencherman standards — over 50 places in a little more than two months, many of which we’ve been to more than once. It is one of our biggest blitzes ever, all brought about by an invasion of good taste the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in thirteen years.

I thought 2018 was a watershed year of good restaurants arriving on our shores(?), but from the looks of things, 2019 could top it.

All of it makes for a lot of mastication…all in the service of determining who will be new to our top 52 come this fall…

As usual, all restaurants are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted (an asterisk means I’ve been there more than once recently):

THE LIST

ManzoDon’t call it Carnevino-lite. It’s its own thing (above) and that thing is a world-class Italian steakhouse.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos – When you need to inhale a little Ensendada.

Soho Japanese Restaurant – Serious south side sushi + amazing omakase.

NoMad*I shall return to NoMad one of these days to see if the service has improved…after I figure out a way to sneak in.

NoMad Bar*That hamburger and that hot dog.

Andiron Steak and SeafoodFun brunch, fun making fun of all those self-impressed Summerlin-ers. “Oh look, honey! They have FRENCH champagne here! I hear it’s good!”

Image may contain: food

Other Mama – Can it get any better? (see sashimi above)

Honey SaltHolding its own against an ersatz Italian (North), that’s packed with SUV-driving, vapid Summerlin saps (but I repeat myself) all day long. P.S. I’ve eaten at North too, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about it.

Mabel’s BBQ*I find myself craving Mabel’s ‘cue…and I haven’t craved Vegas ‘cue in a coon’s age.

Mott 32*So much cleavage is on display I’ve taken to calling it Mott 32D. (This is not a bad thing.) Right now, might be the best Chinese in town. Correction: right now it IS the best Chinese restaurant in town.

Lamaii* – Two pre-opening visits have me hungering for more.

The Factory Kitchen* – Been twice, need to get back, love everything about it except the industrial decor. Superb pastas and a winning wine list.

Saga Sandwiches + Pastry – Scandinavian sandwiches in Henderson? Yep, and they’re great. Chef Gert has a tough road to hoe, competing with 3,000 other places to eat on Eastern Ave., but this natty little Norwegian is very very nice.

China Mama* – Praise the lord and pass the xiao long bao! This place has returned to its former glory.

Scotch 80 Prime* Barry Dakake puts out a menu of classics backed up by a whiskey bar par excellence. The decor is also a vast improvement over the previous steakhouse-which-shall-not-be-named.

(Spicy sesame noodles at Fat Choy)

Fat Choy – Congrats to Sheridan Su on his James Beard nomination!

Lawry’s The Prime Rib – The name says it all. Old school in all the best ways. With service that never misses a beat.

BBD’s – Burgers, Beer and Desserts*Best. Burgers. In. Vegas.

Forte Tapas Is back on my radar. Where it hasn’t been in a long time. Maybe it’s the caviar. Maybe it’s because I’m secretly in love with Nina Manchev. ;-)

Spago*It may sound like heresy, but Spago might be a better restaurant now than it was at Caesars Palace. The people watching isn’t as good, but the view is better and the menu is tighter.

Sparrow + WolfBetter than ever.

EATTNew decor now fits the consistently excellent  French food. A neighborhood gem from top to bottom with nicely priced wine, and oh those desserts!

John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill – Never again. You have been warned…even though it doesn’t do any good to warn you because you (the slack-jawed hordes) will still flock here (because Guy Fieri), but the place is terrible.

(Mordeo)
MordeoMay have the best steak off the Strip. They’re aging them right before your eyes and they’re something to behold. The wine list is on its way to becoming a local treasure.

Esther’s Kitchen*I’ve lost count of my meals here, and it’s only been open a little more than a year. The bar, those amaros, Sonia, the pizzas, the sandwiches, Paul, James….it’s pretty much become a semi-private club for me and a few hundred downtown foodies.

Ohlala French BistroAnother place too far from my palatial manse that I wish I visited more often.

Siam Square – New Thai downtown; the food was good, but not good enough to lure me away from Ocha Thai or D E Thai Kitchen.

Aloha Specialties Hawaiians eat so much white food it’s a wonder their bowels ever move. Belly bombs like Kahlua pig and Loco Moco won’t help, either, but they’re damn tasty…as are the bento boxes.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – There’s not a better off-Strip Italian in town, and very few on-Strip that measure up.

Yui Edomae Sushi1-2 with Kabuto for local sushi superiority.

Wing Lei* I’ve had two meals here recently and three at Mott 32. There’s no denying the beauty of Wing Lei, but the Beijing duck is better at Mott.

Vetri* – Philly’s best is now our best. And oh that view. (Look closely at the pic above – it’s a reflection of me taking a snap out the window.)

Jammyland – Come for the rum, stay for the Jamaican food.

Carson KitchenMay have lost its edge, but can still stun you with an occasional special.

Pop Up PizzaA great, simple pizzeria (serving nothing but slices and garlic knots) in search of a hotel that appreciates it.

PublicUs*Great coffee, wonderful bread, so so food (there, I said it). Those cream cheese scones, though.

Vesta Coffee*My coffee hangout.

Desert Wind Coffee Roasters – My coffee hangout outside my ‘hood.

Them’s a lot to chew on…but does that mean we’re done?

Gird your loins, pilgrim, we’re just getting started:

(Today’s thing that looks like a face)

Delices Gourmands*My go-to for croissants, baguettes, pistachio rolls, and canelés de Bordeaux. (above) There ought to be a line out the door for these baked goods.

DelmonicoStill humming after all these years (20 to be exact). Hasn’t lost a beat, or the best Caesar in the business.

Strip SteakI’d eat at SS once a week if it was easier to get to and didn’t feel like a bus station.

Charlie Palmer Steak Just nibbles at the bar, but they were a cut above.

Le PhoLe ginormous bowls of beef noodle soups are boring to me. But the rest of the menu, and the bánh mí, are not.

(Kanomjeen Namya Pu – yellow curry crab)

D E Thai Kitchen* – Street Thai in a teeny tiny space that I’ve now been to five times in three months. Yes, it’s that good, as you can see above.

Cipriani* – Another place I consistently crave.

New Asian BBQ*Good not great dim sum, a nice additional option when you’re craving a quick lunch on Spring Mountain Road. So full of fellow travelers (Asians) gwailo (you) will feel like a rabbi at an Arkansas pig roast. Which is as it should be.

Ocha Thai – Old-style Thai the polar opposite of teeny tiny DE down the street (large, big menu, booze) but always satisfying, and the house-made sausages alone are worth the trip.

The Goodwich* – I love the sandwiches here but I wish they were on better bread.

La Comida – Doesn’t have the verve or the consistency it once did. Feels like it’s just going through the motions. I fear I have had my last meal here.

No photo description available.

Raku If Raku were located anywhere but Las Vegas, it would be considered the best izakaya in the country.

White Castle – Because even snooty food critics go slumming once in a while.

Shake Shack – Because it’s better than In-N-Out. Don’t argue with me about this.

In-N-Out Burger – I still love my double-double, but the fries do suck.

Del Taco – The Double Del is one of the great, unsung fast food burgers in America. A guilty pleasure.

POTsEgypt goes vegan, and it’s good….if a bit limited. Have owner Iman explain the name. A charming little addition to our food scene.

Nuro Bistro – The Hainanese rice is even better than the chicken, and the chicken is spectacular. You’d better like chicken, though.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled awesomesauce.

La Cantine – Serious sandwiches in the northwest.

(New York Bagel N Bakery)

New York Bagel N Bakery – Some of you may remember the Montesano family who operated a quality Italian deli on Sahara back in the 90s. I don’t know where they went, but they’re back and they’ve given this sad little bakery a serious upgrade. Everything is baked on premises and the bagels kick the ass of whatever you think is good.

I know what you’re thinking: Did he go to 48 restaurants or 54? Well to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I sorta lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 caliber palate, the most powerful mandibles ever made, and could blow your mealy mouth clean off, you have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Well, do you, punk?