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
In the Tropicana Hotel and Casino
3801 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89109