When Piero Selvaggio first opened Valentino in Santa Monica in 1972, he will tell you he knew very little about Italian food and absolutely nothing about Italian wine. By the time he and Chef Luciano Pellegrini opened Valentino in The Venetian nine years ago, ELV (and many others) will tell you he was widely considered the best Italian restaurateur in America, and that probably no one, outside of Italy, knows more about Italian wine.
Selvaggio’s personal and professional pilgrimage began on the southeastern coast of Sicily. He and his family moved to Brooklyn in 1963, and six years later, he was a very young man with a lot of ambition and no prospects. So where did he head? Well, to Las Vegas of course! Yes, even in 1969 it seems Vegas was the land of plenty for expatriates and nomads looking to make their mark on the world. As the French would say: plus la change, plus la meme chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
In 1969, still struggling with his English, he landed a job as bus boy, and eventual captain at the showroom in the International Hotel (now the Las Vegas Hilton), which was then the largest hotel in the world. Those were the days when the Bacchanal Room at Caesars, the Dome of the Sea at the Dunes, and the House of Lords steakhouse at the Sahara ruled the roost. Las Vegas’s Italian food was dominated by the Villa d’Este (where Piero’s now serves, more or less, the same menu…or something awfully close to it).
Selvaggio’s first Vegas stint was short lived. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention it in the introductory chapters of The Valentino Cookbook (Villard 2001), but that’s probably because the allure of SoCal was so much stronger (and cheaper) back then, and probably because he knew Vegas was destined to be mired in red sauce purgatory for decades to come.
Selvaggio says he learned about Italian food in reverse: he opened a restaurant, made it a modest success, and then traveled to his homeland to learn about the subtleties of sauces, regional differences, and pristine ingredients that distinguish it from the world’s other great cuisines. (He doesn’t recommend this learning curve to anyone, however.) It was a patron of his who constructively criticised his food as “truly awful”, but that who then encouraged him to return to his roots to discover the real thing.
That’s just what he did (along with getting a degree in Journalism in America), and by the early 1980’s the original Valentino was the standard bearer for la cucina Italiana throughout the United States. Others took up the chant either alongside or after him — like Roberto Donna, Sirio Maccioni and Lidia Bastianich — but Selvaggio’s education has served him and the American public very well. (Not even the idea of fresh pasta was in our food vocabulary until these folks took us by the hand and showed us how wonderful it could be.)
Selvaggio’s two LV outposts consistently outperform almost all others in town (only Circo and Enoteca San Marco can give it a run for your money). Both however, consistently fly under the radar of foodies, and that’s a shame. Giorgio Ristorante (formerly Caffe Giorgio) is the more casual (and cheaper) of the two, but we’ll put Nico Chessa’s veal, lamb, meat, and pastas up against anything being done at the mothership.
Our recent meal began with little whole wheat pizzas of gorgonzola and proscuitto, followed by a superlative sea bass crudo with balsamico, trios of the usual superlative pastas (Chessa’s Sardinian gnocchetti, and lobster and sea urchin “carbonara” are beautiful beyond belief), and a trio of meats: veal beef and lamb that demonstrated the deceptive simplicity behind perfect Italian food.
The wine list is much shorter, and much more reasonable, than Valentino’s, but is still chock full of interesting bottles for well under $100. Both its list and Valentino’s (not to mention their amazing wine bars) are perfect places to begin or expand your Italian wine education.
Giorgio Ristorante is open for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two with a modest bottle of wine will run around $120+, lunch about half of that, or much less if you don’t drink wine (what a shame…) and stick with pizzas and pastas.
In the Mandalay Place Shoppes
3939 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89119