Last Call at CIRCO

I didn’t make it to Circo’s last night, last night, and that’s probably for the best.

Between the memories, the nostalgia and twinges of bitterness, watching the old girl take her last breath would’ve been too much for a person of my delicate constitution to handle. Knowing my feelings for the place, what could’ve been an evening of fond farewells was destined to end with me even sadder than I am right now as I write these words. So I stayed away.

I also stayed away because what happened last night was the end of an era — an era the beginning of which no other food writer in this town attended, or is even aware.

You see, none of them, not Max, not Heidi Knapp Rinella, not Al Mancini (and no Yelpers) were there at the beginning. But I was. And Circo was the beginning. And the beginning was October 15, 1998.

Sure, before Circo there was Spago (opened December, 11, 1992), and Emeril and Mark Miller’s Coyote Cafe and Charlie Trotter.  They were all pioneers of our restaurant revolution. The mountain men who headed west (well, east in Spago’s case) and saw gold in them thar hills before the world caught the fever. But October 15, 1998 was when the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave and the whole world felt the shudder.

We sat in the far right corner, next to the window looking out at the Bellagio fountains. I think I was happily married at the time, but was soon not to be, so that doesn’t matter. What mattered was this was a real Italian restaurant; a Tuscan Italian restaurant, run by Italian restaurant nobility (the Maccionis), with a fun bar and a great wine list; the whole package under one, colorful, circus-themed, Adam Tihany-designed, roof.

It was a like a tasty slice of mid-town Manhattan had parked itself right in my back yard, and I was beaming from ear to ear as I sampled what seemed like half the menu.

Then and now I considered it one of the best designed restaurants I had ever been in. Wraparound windows looking onto the Bellagio “lake,” a bar neither too big nor too small, a comfy waiting area, classy little banquet room and, best of all, restrooms IN the restaurant. (People forget that, until Steve Wynn did so with the Big B, none of the restaurants in Las Vegas’s main hotels had bathrooms in them.)

And these weren’t just government-issue toilets like you found in every other hotel; these were Adam-Tihany-designed bathrooms with the decor of the restaurant incorporated into their look, using lots of  marble and real, thick cotton hand towels like you get in real cities. (I think I was as jazzed about the bathroom situation as I was about the food on that first day.)

(Circo wasn’t the only beautifully designed restaurant at the Bellagio. From Michael DeSantis’s Prime to Jasmine to Picasso to the jewel box that is Le Cirque — also done by Tihany — this hotel ‘s murderer’s row of restaurants set the template for many hotels to follow…and fail to emulate. Wynn loves to gasbag on and on about how Wynn/Encore is his crowning achievement, but the Bellagio is/was his masterpiece, and deep down he knows it.)

Lunch that day was a three-hour affair, and many more soon followed. I took colleagues there, friends there, clients there, my parents  and even a few dates* once that marriage fell apart. Sometime around when Bill Clinton was ejaculating on Monica Lewinsky’s dress, they stopped charging me, but up until then, there were dozens of visits and thousands of dollars spent in the joint.

I first sang Circo’s praises on November 26, 1998 on KNPR, and within two months of its opening, my family and friends were considering having me enter a 12-step program because of my addiction to it and its restaurant brethren.

Two and a half years after the opening, I publicly mourned the tragic, premature death of its first chef — Enzino Secci — and was crestfallen when, in the aftermath of 9/11, they decided to permanently discontinue lunch. I remember feeling as if a friend had died on both occasions, because they had.

Regardless, there was always the food. Mama Egi’s family classics were the backbone of the menu: ravioli with sheep’s milk ricotta and butter-sage sauce, Pici Toscani (hand-rolled thick spaghetti with a true Bolognese), rack of lamb crusted with Pecorino cheese, Caciucco Toscano (fisherman’s stew), mascarpone polenta) — a single bite of which told you you were no longer in (lousy) lasagna land.

Before you got to them, though, there was the bread. Good bathrooms weren’t the only trail blazed by the Bellagio. Now, we all take good bread for granted, but sixteen years ago, locating good bread in Vegas was harder than finding a stripper who would take a check. A real breadbasket full of grissini, crusty bread and chewy rolls straight from an oven was unheard of. From the first bite (from that very first breadbasket) we knew a revolution had taken place.

All of it was a testament to the talent and standards of the Maccioni clan, and the vision of Wynn and his executives who wanted to change the game and had the good taste to do so.

Circo made us grow up as a restaurant city. It brought big-city sophistication, and sophisticated Italian food, to a town sorely in need of both. No longer would Las Vegas not be taken seriously as a food town. So did I predict after those very first bites, and so did it come to pass.

My ardor cooled a bit over the past dozen years. I’ve never quite recovered from the body blow of losing my very own, first class, white tablecloth dining room for lunch. But increased competition also had a lot to do with it. Being a pioneer, setting a trend and raising the bar are all applicable clichés, but once the die was cast, it was hard to stem the tidal wave of copycats and wannabes from swamping these desert shores…and grabbing a piece of our tourist-food- dollar-pie in the process.**

Over the past few years, I pretty much quit going to Circo altogether. Between the economic downturn, rotating chefs, and the sense that the corporate parent was milking the old cow for all she’s worth, it hardly seemed worth the effort…or the calories. And once the Bellagio severed ties with the Maccioni family (and big brother Mario left town), the magic was gone. Our last meal there of a year or so ago was decent enough, but it was obvious the staff was playing out the string.

Rather than dwell on how far the mighty had fallen, we preferred to stay away last night and remember all the good things: Mario, Sirio and Egi nervously sitting at the front tables, watching the staff like hawks; kibbitzing with Mauro and Marco when they were in town; Antonello Paganuzzi, Greg Jarmolowich and Lesley Terborg running the front of the house like a fine-tuned watch; Enzino in the kitchen; Paolo Barbieri, Jaime Smith and Patrick Pretz teaching our palates and blowing our minds with undiscovered, massive, dirty-earthy wines; Noe; Amy Rosetti; the desserts (oh, those over-the-top desserts!); bartenders who always knew your name; all that great Tuscan food; and one or two waitresses whom I would’ve loved to ask out (post-divorce) if I hadn’t been so old, or they hadn’t been so married.

That’s how I’ll always remember Osteria del Circo….and why I couldn’t go last night.

But it was something to behold on October 15, 1998. You really should have been there.


* One was with a high-maintenance, full-of-herself female lawyer (is there any other kind?) who complained to me: “The service isn’t very good here, is it?” within 90 seconds of being handed a menu.

** ELV defies you to mix more (bad) metaphors in one sentence than this.

7 thoughts on “Last Call at CIRCO

  1. While I was in Las Vegas, someone told my wife that the very best place in LVegas to watch the Super Bowl was at a Sports Book So we went to what was the best, at the Bellagio. Well, the sports book was out of control. Too many people and too little staff, especially considering Marlene’s lack of patience. We left, went to Fix, but $100 for a table wasn’t in the budget. I remembered that Circo had a TV in the bar. We went in to a deserted restaurant and bar. Only staff. The bartender, whose name I cannot recall, but he was a budding actor, remembered us from previous visits. We sat there, watched the game – sans sound- had a great pizza, and felt like we were in the private club of a lifetime. And we were. I understand just how you feel, John.

  2. Dining at Circo for lunch was exquisite back in 2001 – Mauro indicated a couple who came “every day” for lunch and I imagined how I might be able to do the same. There have been many prospective employees I’ve tried to woo with a meal at Circo over the years. But my last visit during the 2013 holiday season caused me bittersweet feelings. The food was tremendous but it was full of people who seemed to be more interested in resting their feet from the holiday throng and catching the fountains without even taking their bulky parkas off while at the table. Kids were fobbed off with ipads to keep them quiet. I left knowing something had changed and the glimpse of a golden era I’d experienced 13 years prior was long gone. Thanks for your account ELV – you are correct. Sometimes it’s better to remember things “the way they were”.
    PS: Maccioni family is no connection with Le Cirque next door any longer? Is that what we should take away from your note above?

  3. ELV responds: The Maccioni’s management deal with the hotel ended under its own terms in 2013 (after 15 years), and the restaurant(s) became the sole and exclusive property of MRI (Mirage Resorts International).

    Patriarch Sirio may still be under contract with them to make the occasional publicity appearance, but that’s it. (And he’s getting up there in years, so I doubt we’ll see him in our humble burg any more.) ;-(

  4. This made me so sad. I remember my first meal at Le Cirque with you, John, and the many more at Circo that followed thereafter. While the dining room was exquisitely playful, the food was just exquisite. I will miss the white truffle pizza with extra heaping is truffles shaved right at the tables and my favorite lunch time treat while simple and seemingly pedestrian – the spaghetti pomodoro was sublime. I echo your sentiment in that some of the magic died for me when they stopped serving lunch, but Circo had long been on the Miss Saigon Vegas tour when friends and family alike passed through. I’m glad for your piece, John, because it summed up nicely a place we thought was our kitchen away from home and what a kitchen (and dining room) it was.

  5. Makes me a bit bleary eyed. I remember like it was yesterday, August 1999 the summer of my divorce (moved out Feb 14 that year) I was turning a new page in my life and had just got into the manufacturing business. Had a industry convention at the Mirage and wanted to treat a couple of my new customers. Found Circo and booked a table for 12 of us.
    I remember clearly getting a call from the restaurant 2 or 3 days before we arrived getting some details about our group.
    What a fantastic experience, the food, the wine the service. It was all absolutely first class. This experience along with a few more that year put me on the “foodie” path that I know enjoy so much.
    I recently ran into a couple who were my guests that night from Wisconsin. Jenny was quite young at the time and it made me feel good that she mentioned “you remember that great meal we had at the Bellagio all those years ago?” She went on to describe some of the dishes we had that night…15 years ago!!
    I have said it before but I think it bears repeating. In my mind great dining experiences should be “memorable” and the many times (at least 20) that I have dined at Circo the experience has been memorable. My last time there was a quite Wed night in June. My wife and I sat at the windows watching the fountains enjoying a great evening……….sniff sniff……:-(

  6. This will always remain one of the worst Vegas dining experiences. The worst lasagne and pizza I have ever had. Can’t believe it lasted this long. No tears here.

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