John Curtas is …

A Tale of Two Italians

It was the best of times (because Italian food has had a twenty year Renaissance), it was the worst of times (because it’s now ubiquitous), it was the age of wisdom (Mario Batali), it was the age of foolishness (Macaroni Grill’s authenticity), it was the epoch of belief (Patron Saint Piero Selvaggio), it was the epoch of incredulity (how does Carraba’s stay in business?), it was the season of Light  (luscious Lambruscos), it was the season of Darkness (Nora’s in bankruptcy), it was the spring of hope (Due Forni/D.O.C.G.), it was the winter of despair (red sauce everywhere), we had everything before us (Italian restaurants everywhere!), we had nothing before us (Italian restaurants everywhere), we were all going direct to (hog) heaven, we were all going direct the other way (Olive Garden hell) – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities (ELV) insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities, English novelist (1812-1870)

ELV thinks that about sums it up. He would love to write that he just can’t get enough of the type of Italian food like they serve at the Pasta Shop and Bacio, but truth be told, even though he takes the good with the bad (the yin and yang of Italian eats) as the way things must be, the cuisine’s resurgence over the past twenty years has just about worn him out — even when it’s perfectly serviceable.

The American public is obviously in love with the generic meal of Caesar salad, salad Caprese, calamari, antipasto, salad, pizza, pasta and primi piatti (invariably chicken parm, Marsala, meatballs and such) and flock to these standards like the faithful to the stations of the cross. But if you eat out all the time, no matter how well they’re prepared, these standards dull the imagination (and palate) even as they expand the waistline. So, please excuse our barely-disguised boredom with this food even as we praise a couple of practitioners that take the time to do it right.

Carping aside, there’s a lot to like about David and Glen Alenick’s new venue on Horizon Ridge:

First of all, it’s not the old space. If you were ever in that little rectangular room, tucked on the side of a less than thriving strip mall at the corner of Trop and Eastern, you know it had its charms, but they faded quickly whenever you looked out the window.

Through it all, the Aleniks continued to serve their loyal customers straight-from-the-extruder noodles like many of them had never experienced. They also did a thriving wholesale business, that continues today, although Glen told us the resurgence in Italian cooking over the past fifteen years has many restaurants rolling their own these days.

Their  food is as reliable as ever, nothing too outré or inventive,  and exactly what their customers want. Saffron shrimp saute is sufficiently shrimp-y and saffron-y to satisfy, and the four-cheese baked rigatoni is a cheesy delight. We wish the Caesar was tangier and the meatballs had more seasoning to them, but you get the feeling looking around the dining room that if Glen (the on-premises chef) ever kicked it up a notch or two, his customers would flee right back to Buca di Beppo.

As it is, they are happy to be eating a fresh-made tomato sauce in a locally-0wned institution that cares about its clients, and can turn out a mean calamari over bow-tie pasta when it gets some inspiration.

Kicking it up a notch or two on our own…a few nights later we took a test drive around the new Tropicana (lots of bright white paint — very Miami Beach) and found ourselves smack dab in front of Bacio — Carla Pellegrino’s cool and casual Italian trattoria one flight up from the casino floor:

Carla obviously has better groceries and a higher-paying clientele to deal with, so the bump in quality is noticeable. If you’re familiar with her cooking Rao’s (and Bratalian), you will recognize many familiar favorites (insalatina di mare, bistecca alla pizzaiola, gamberoni in umido) all done to a turn and as good a version of these classics as is available in our humble burg. Her arancini (deep fried risotto balls) resemble elongated, tiny footballs, and may be even better than that. They taste like minutes-before-made risotto, oozing mozz spiked with prosciutto. They are, to quote a highly refined Eye-talian, “f*cking fantastic!”

Points have to be deducted for some (slightly) gummy gnocchi (in a beautiful ragù), though, but all was forgiven once her superb branzino hit the table. Those, and the tiramisu, had our table swooning — well, everyone but ELV anyway. Having left the Rao’s universe, Pellegrino is clearly out to make her own mark on Vegas’ Italian restaurant scene, and to that extent, Bacio is neck and neck (or should it be gnocchi and gnocchi?) with her former employer/family for the Strip’s best Italian-American.

Here’s ELV, suffering from major Italian food fatigue, signing off from this cuisine for awhile.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Leeds picked up the tab at the Pasta Shop (grazie!) and Carla comped our meal at Bacio (grazie!), so ELV has no idea what these meals cost. He will tell you entrees at Bacio are in the $20-$40 range, and similar dishes at the Pasta Shop seemed to run about 25-30% less.

PASTA SHOP & RISTORANTE

2525 West Horizon Ridge Parkway

Henderson, NV 89052

702.451.1893

http://www.pastashop.com/The_Pasta_Shop/Welcome.html

BACIO

In the Tropicana Hotel and Casino

3801 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.739.2222

http://www.troplv.com/dining/bacio


9 Responses to A Tale of Two Italians

  • hopefully her kitchen runs better then at Bratalian

  • Well-written, ELV. I take your advice to heart, as I am saddened by the thought of Nora’s going away. However, I find your recommendations of Bacio’s and Pasta Shop to be a ray of light. If the food is as good as it looks…

    As I reside in Centennial Hills, and try to avoid the Strip or points East, I thought that your readers who live in the northwest might like to know about one of my faves – Il Vino Cucina and Wine Bar, at Aliante Station. Superb Italian, and a great wine list. And, if I do say so myself, the best Veal Scaloppini I’ve had in years.

    Sorry if I’ve stepped upon your hallowed turf, ELV. I’m just trying to do my C.D.D. (Civic Dining Duty).

    Cheers!

  • Thank you for recognizing that bacio is an Italian-American restaurant, rather than an Italian restaurant. Although I enjoy Miss Pelegrino’s cooking (1000x better than Raos in NYC I should add), I find it bothersome that people in the USA do not know the difference. I and I-A come from similar heritage but there is a huge distinction between the two cuisines, in fact it can be argued that there is actually no Italian cuisine because it varies so greatly region to region.

    I chose not to argue, I just chose to eat; but I am appreciative of the distinction nonetheless.

  • Thanks for giving Pasta Shop some love, it truly is a gem.

  • With regard to the previous poster about Nora’s closing etc. I’m truly saddened to hear that as I’ve been a supporter of them from day one, but I do agree lately in that, I’ve seen a slow, progressive and continuous brilliant display of Italian cuisine poetry on the menu being translated by illiterates in the kitchen; including cold food, cold plates, etc. The owners’ have the right concept, but lately, what I’m buying isn’t what I’m eating. This wasn’t the case when they opened.. Summerlin needs this restaurant to survive and we should support them. Why? : It’s a food wasteland out there on the west side and how many places use real wood to cook with etc……. All businesses are about profit, and with a slowing economy, it’s tough to keep up quality but small things like hot food and hot plates should be easy to do or so I foolishly may think… Seriously, although it’s easy to comment negatively about a place, Let’s not be so quick to look the other way when we hear news of a place like Nora’s Wine Bar having financial problems. We all applauded when they opened and commented on how lucky the community was to have authenticity . However, Now that they are having problems, shouldn’t we be giving them our business and helping them rather than negatively commenting here?. In writing this, I started out thinking that Nora’s was cutting corners etc, however, after pondering about this for quite some time and thinking about the fact that this establishment is running a business that a lot truly don’t appreciate, I realized that if this place closes, Summerlin diners are truly suffering fools. That statement includes myself as well for not giving this establishment the business it deserves. Go eat there and pray these places don’t close because there are a lot of Chilis, Maccaroni Grill, Ruby’s and others who would like to move in and feed us garbage.

  • Nora’s in Summerlin is not dead yet folks. Was there on Tuesday night after a friend got a $25-off-$50-worth-of-food email from them. Only reluctantly went because of some not-so-good meals/service there a few months back, but was pleasantly surprised to find a new menu ~ more small plates ~ and a pretty full room.

    Food was decent and service was fine. If you want to see that place stay in business, now would be the time to give them another try.

  • The Pasta Shop is literally about 150 yards from my office (@2445). We go there for lunch regularly. Great place.

  • The problem non of this is real Italian food
    These are all italo-american cooking that derives from poor immigrants with poor cooking skills from the south of Italy and via via bastardized through the generations.
    The food here compared to real Italian food is like comparing Sofia Loren to Snookey
    Many might not know but the name “marinara sauce’ dose not exist in Italy. It’s Pomarola or Salsa al Pomodoro. If you asked for marinara in Italy they wouldn’t know what you are talking about
    Chicken marsala, parmigiana, piccata, Alfredo – are not Italian dishes
    Chicken is actually hardly ever served in restaurants in Italy and never, NEVER, in pasta
    Italians would probably never serve gnocchi with bolognese ragu’, that in it’s real form is much dryer then the awful looking dish in the photograph
    What “In the Cards” writes is true, Italian cuisine is regional and not this mostly crap we have in Las Vegas that an real Italian would never eat.

  • We, (as in those who seemingly are connoisseur’s of traditional, regional cusines), sometimes allow our haughty indifference of those we deem to have unopinionated palates to cloud any measure of reasonable thinking when it comes to passing judgement. While I am a purist at heart, (and the thought of any dish that is not true to its roots often seems appalling upon the first taste), I’m also a realist.

    As you all know, the success of a restaurant isn’t necessarily based solely on the authenticity of the dishes, (even though the audience that frequents these pages would prefer it that way-myself included). A successful restaurant, whether it be at the level of Macaroni Grill, Bacio or Valentino, is going to serve dishes that meet the demands of their customer base. If they show a disdain for the tastes of their customers, they won’t have enough money to pay the bill to put the water in the pasta pot so to speak.

    Is it a bad thing that some crave a plate of breaded chicken smothered in marinara sauce and sticky, gloppy cheese? Is it dishonest for Chef Carla to serve a customer a beautifully fresh filet of crisp-skinned Branzino accented with fragrant extra virgin olive oil in a Italian-American “style” restaurant? Is Chef Luciano Pellegrini of Valentino disrespecting his Italian heritage by serving grilled quail with chanterelles and huckleberries foraged out of the forests of the Pacific Northwest? It’s for you and only you to decide, yet to deride the tastes of those who consider the start of an “Italian” meal to be a plate of deep-fried frozen cheese sticks is being ignorant of reality.

    You don’t have to like the gummy gnocchi doused in gloppy sauce, but you’re not forced to dine at the restaurant that serves it either. As ELV often points out, his great challenge and duty is providing a service to his readers–an opinionated palate–that one can use as a reference point to decide on whether or not the Bebe di Sorrento should only be served at a Trattoria in Castellammare di Stabia–or if it’s o.k. to serve Italian cheese in Las Vegas.

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