The only difference between Italian food in New York and L.A. is, in L.A. your food is made by overworked and underpaid Mexicans, and in New York it’s made by overworked and underpaid Puerto Ricans – Michelle Huneven
It’s Friday boys and girls, time for another installment of Bad Italian Food Review.
Today’s lecture has Professor ELV in somewhat of a quandary. He would like to get medieval on Zeffirino’s sorry, over-hyped, under-performing, tourist trap ass, but in all fairness, there are things to like about this restaurant. But before he gets to the good, the bad and the ugly, first a short story.
It was 1999. Zeffirino’s had just opened along with the Venetian Hotel and the Grand Canal Shoppes in which it sits. (Remember the words of the late, great, Anthony John Curtas – The Official Deceased Father of ELV: “When they spell shops with two p’s and and an “es,” they saw you comin.”) Five years into his critic gig with Nevada Public Radio, your humble professor was no longer a restaurant reviewing novice, and fresh off a two week trip to Italy with Anthony Robert Curtas (The Official Number One Son of ELV), he was eager to test his newly calibrated palate on American versions of Italian standards.
So we went to this lush, gorgeous, well appointed, spanking new joint overlooking the fake canal, were taken up and through the labyrinth of upholstery and tile the defines the place, seated by a solicitous maitre d’, and proceeded to order an antipasti, a risotto, a pasta, and (by now) a long forgotten main course. We remember being with a few colleagues eager to here our gustatory tales of Tuscan hills and Venetian lagoons, of boffo Bolognese, and zowie zabagliones. The prosciutto with melon appeared. The melon was hard as a rock and the prosciutto of third rate quality. Then came the chicken and mushroom risotto — highly touted by our maitre d’ along with another, shrimp risotto they were featuring that day. The chicken and mushroom risotto arrived, studded with chunks of chicken and “woodsy” mushrooms just as described. But something was wrong. It tasted of fish. Of seafood and shrimp. Powerfully of fish, even though it clearly was a land-born dish — or supposed to be anyway.
Our waiter was summoned, as was the formerly-friendly maitre d’. “Verily I beseech thee,” said Professor (at this point he was just an adjunct) ELV. “It doth appear that a foul fish has harkened upon thine (and mine) risotto. What do yee make of this strange turn?” (ELV always talks this way for awhile after he returns from Europe.)
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” said the waitron.
“It’s fine,” said his maitre d’.
“But I have recently yonder hithered from Italia, where the woods reek not of fish most foul, nor doeth mushrooms bespeak of shrimp shells,” was ELV’s retort. “Verily, I must protest, but not too much, that perhaps thine kitchen help hath ladled the stock of seafood into thine pot of mushroom-y rice! Yay, I assail thee not with this observation, but implore thee to taste again for the evil that doth lurk therein.”
But they were having none of it. Someone in the kitchen had clearly finished the chicken risotto with the seafood stock, but for twenty friggin’ bucks, no one in this place was gonna budge. They left it on the table, and on the bill.
That kind of attitude is the very definition of a tourist trap, and that’s what we’ve considered Zeffirino’s to be ever since.
There are tons of fawning articles and reviews lining the walls — all of them exalting another restaurant located in Genoa (Italy, not Nevada) — and if you go to the original Zeffirino website, all you see is a page of a chef posing with celebrities and various Italian food mavens such as Cassius Clay(?) and Barry White.
Aside from these irrelevant printed paeans to its excellence (in Italy), there is nothing in evidence to show that our Zeffirino is anything more than a franchise (or a name with decor attached), bought by some back east investors to plop into our humble burg with hopes of soaking the turistas.
And that’s pretty much what it is.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. The restaurant is gorgeous and comfortable, and some of the food is good.
Our Caprese salad was made with good, big, fresh tomato slices, along with fresh, cow’s milk mozzarella, and dribbled with basil oil – a nice touch. The little individual pizza was nice and cheesy, with just a schmear of not-too-sweet tomato sauce — although the crust was more like sponge-y flatbread, only crispy on the edges.
We played it safe and ordered the seafood risotto this time (half expecting it to be finished with chicken stock), but weren’t disappointed at all with what arrived. It’s been said that the test of a true risotto is you should be able to count the grains of rice in your mouth (at least in the parts of Italy where they favor the less soupy version), and this one came through beautifully, and was intensely flavored with the scents of the sea.
But that’s pretty much where the good taste ended. The overcooked chicken piccata was barely up to Olive Garden standards, and our beef “Marsala” tasted of liver. Both came with some forlorn broccoli on the plate, and were accompanied by a house red wine that tasted like blueberry/blackberry syrup.
The paltry dessert platter that comes with the $20 lunch special is pre-made (we’re guessing far off the premises), too cold, and not worth the paltry calories.
And the service was just pathetic. Five guys in suits running around who couldn’t service a dozen tables during a slow lunch. (It took over a half hour to get a dessert and a check, after we had finished everything on the table.)
It’s refreshing (but not in a good way) for your professor to occasionally go unrecognized in a restaurant to see how the hoi polloi are treated. From the looks of things, this place wouldn’t care even if they knew who he was, and we feel sorry for those who stumble into Zeffirino, read all the hype, think they are going to get a top flight experience, and end up with second and third tier entrees that would be laughed out of Portofino.
The lesson to take from today (and this will be on the test): There is an inverse relationship between the amount of self-congratulatory hype on the walls of a restaurant, and the quality of the food.
And if you want to eat whatever made Zeffirino famous, go to Italy and grab a table with Cassius Clay.
In the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian
3377 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109