Now THAT’S Italian!

An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.

What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)

Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:

Esther’s Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzú

Eataly

Vetri

Masso Osteria

La Strega

Cipriani

Manzo (inside Eataly)

The Factory Kitchen

All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.

What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.

Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.

Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.

To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.

The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.

Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.

If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)

These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.

The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.

Image result for The Factory Kitchen Las Vegas

Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!

Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid  stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.

Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)

Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or the tangle of bright, fresh field greens with watermelon radish and champagne vinaigrette (ortolana), or beer-battered leeks with chickpea fritters (frittura).

As good as they are, the two starters not to miss are the prosciutto and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham sitting beneath a mound of stringy-creamy stracciatella cheese, speckled with pepper and drizzled with more of that insanely good oil. All of these sit atop crispy fried sage dough, making for a picture perfect amalgam of crunchy, creamy, salty and sweet.  The dish represents the sort of flavor/mouthfeel gymnastics Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.

Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.

(Ravioli di pesce)

Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle.  He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.

(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu.  The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.

TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.

Ignore the name and the decor and dive in.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.

 

(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)

THE FACTORY KITCHEN

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

 

VETRI

Italian food and Las Vegas have had a stressful relationship for decades.

Like a lousy marriage, lots of things suck, but familiarity keeps us together. There are zero surprises, but at some level, that’s all you want from each other.

Bad Italian and Vegas have always gone together like Stella and Stanley, or Sunday gravy and melted mozz, but the good stuff has been harder to find than a goomba with a good vocabulary.

To keep the metaphor going, think of great Italian food like a good marriage: it’s simple, and relaxing, but also full of wonderful little grace notes that reassure you you’ve made the right decision, and with occasional surprises that remind you why you fell in love in the first place.

Sure, we’ve had plenty of celeb chef phone-ins (Giada, Scarpetta), and sea of red sauce joints (Rao’s, Buddy V’s, Maggiano’s, a bajillion joints off Strip), but anything close to authenticity has always taken a back seat to stuffing the conventioneers with as much chicken parm as they can swallow.

And fuggidabadit if you expect dedicated Italian chefs to refine their craft here. The kind of genre-expanding cooking that big cities take for granted, e.g. Sarah Grueneberg in Chicago, Fabio Trabocchi in Washington D.C., or Andrew Carmellini in New York City, is unknown in these parts.

Make no mistake: Las Vegas is the spiritual home of bad Italian food. There may be worse Italian restaurants in Nebraska and North Carolina, but we have more of them, per capita, than anywhere in the country.

Around here, quality not only doesn’t sell; in fact it’s actively spurned. Around here, people like being bored by their Italian food, and numbed into complacency.

A good Italian restaurant is ingredient-driven. A great Italian restaurant takes the world’s greatest raw ingredients and gives them a higher purpose — much as a preeminent musician takes their instrument to heights no one else can achieve.

Even at its most basic level, Italian food is soothing (that’s why it thrives on mediocrity). Average Italian satisfies the way pop music does: it is catchy and popular and forgettable. Great Italian food, like opera, will take your breath away.

Image may contain: food(Tonnarelli grana arso with seafood)

VETRI, if you let it, will take your breath away.

The qualifier is important, because, splendid  as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. There are no easy answers here, toe-tapping is kept to a minimum, and crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary. And like all great Italian food, it often accomplishes more with less.

Consider the following:

Clichés of all kinds have been canned.

Pizzas are kaput.

Soups and scampi have been scuttled.

Meatballs are missing in action.

Caesar is nowhere to be found.

Place settings are spartan.

No giant hunks of cheese or curled ribbons of prosciutto will be ceremoniously brought to your table.

The bread basket is oddly modest.

Something-for-everyone proteins (pork chops, salmon, chicken breasts) are non-existent.

In other words, if you’re looking for a typical Italian meal, as defined by your typical upscale Italian restaurant, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But if you have the chops for a black belt modern Italian food experience — like the best ristorante in Italy are putting out these days — you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Bergamo.

(Fusilli with saffron)

Consider this #2:

Your typical dinner here will might go foie gras pastrami with brioche and mostarda ($28); Swiss chard gnocchi with brown butter ($30), tonnarelli grano arso (toasted wheat pasta, with seafood, $38); and some whole roasted baby goat (more than enough for a couple, $52).

Or perhaps you’d like something a bit lighter, like a squid and artichoke galette ($22), raw fish crudo, a pickled veggie/antipasti platter ($32), and some simple spaghetti with chunky San Marzano tomatoes and basil ($26).

(Veal tartare with crispy sweetbreads)

Or maybe you want to throw in with the big boys and take down some veal tartare with sweetbreads, a sweet onion crepe (really more like a thick tarte) served with white truffle fondue, followed by either a whole roasted branzino for two ($110), or a a brontosaurian bistecca Fiorentina (also for two, $195), that, like the sea bass, is enough to keep 3-4 trenchermen occupied.

Mere plebes may be happy with a gorgeous stuffed guinea hen breast ($48, also enough to split), and the cutest little bone marrow raviolini ($30) you’ve ever seen:

However you want to slice it, Vetri can make it work.

Make it work, mind you, if modern, intense, thoughtful, elegant Italian cuisine is what you are after.

To put it bluntly, if you’re the type who sings the praises of Piero’s, do yourself a favor and stay put.

If you’re looking for volume with your starches and proteins, look elsewhere.

Because Vetri is something of a contradiction — one both underwhelming at first (minimalist decor, an unfussy look, short, simple menu, that bread basket) and then one that dazzles with its attention to detail.

In short, it is sophisticated Italian food, the kind that well-heeled Italians eat.  Food that echoes the shuttered B&B Ristorante , only more finely-tuned. Food to be enjoyed, contemplated, and discussed, not gorged upon. The kind that you’ll find at Dal Pescatore in Mantova, or Del Posto in New York. All of it served in a nonpareil setting — without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country —  56 floors up. The location puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Those breads, you will discover, are baked in-house, with artisanal wheat (from Arizona, of all places), which is ground into flour in-house. (Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like grinding your own flour.) And when you bite into the bread, or dip it into superb olive oil, or get that firm, toothsome, sweet-wheat sense from your noodles, you realize the payoff is worth it.

And when you inhale the nut bread they bake for the cheese selection here, you’ll wonder if you’ve ever tasted any better.

Between the breads and the pastas, it’s hard not to fill up and forget about the rest of the menu. You can craft an ideal meal here without ever venturing into the “secondi” section, and to my mind, the starters and pastas are where the kitchen does its best work.

Las Vegas had the benefit of B&B’s stylish pastas for almost a decade, but it’s gone now and we live in constant threat of regression. This may be just fine with many — let’s face it, Piero’s and The Bootlegger are packed every night — but to a certain level of epicurean, they just don’t cut it. Not when there are goodies like thinly-sliced porchetta with tuna sauce to be had ($22), or casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives ($32), or foie gras pastami on the bill of fare:

Before you get to your table, a stop at the bar to take in the view and one of David Cooper’s cocktails is mandatory. After that you’ll want to navigate Rafael Garcia’s wine list, which isn’t exactly chock full of bargains, but didn’t piss me off, either — which means there’s plenty of drinkable stuff that mere mortals can afford. The by-the-glass list is a treat unto itself, and covers the Italian peninsula from Sicily to Venice.

After three meals here, I can’t claim to have conquered the entire menu, but I’m close. The only disappointing dishes have been the mesquite grilled seafood misto ($52 and very much by-the-numbers), and an antipasti platter that was more style than substance.

The cheese selection is also a little thin, but what they had was in peak condition. My guess is bets are being hedged to see how much of the stuff actually moves. This is Las Vegas, after all, land of the fromage-frightened….unless, of course, it’s mountains of melted (cheap) mozzarella.

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives)

All of this urbane elegance 50+ floors above Flamingo Road begs the question: How did Vetri get here and how is Las Vegas going to react to his stylish cuisine?

He got here somewhat serendipitously because the Lorenzo Fertitta’s son was graduating from Villanova two years ago. The son had booked his graduation party at the original in Philadelphia,  and when Marc saw the name on the reservation book, he realized it was the same people who had previously approached him about coming to Vegas. He then knew he could kill two birds with one spectacular dinner, so he cooked up a storm, the Fertittas were suitably impressed, and now we may have the second best Vetri in our backyard — which means we might have the second greatest Italian restaurant in America right here.

Which doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to your average Vegas visitor.

So I had to pop the question to MV: was How he was going to adjust his food for the sake of the Vegas market?

“Not at all,” he assured me.

Having tackled his menu, I believe him. For the time being.

The second thing I did was warn him that he would soon have hotel honchos telling him more basic Italian food is “what our customers want,” and “Why can’t you put a meatball on the menu?”

He pooh poohed the idea. They all pooh pooh it at first.

It’s bound to happen. It’s happened with everyone from Joël Robuchon to Sirio Maccioni. RESIST MIGHTILY, MARC VETRI!

Sooner or later (usually sooner) some hotel executive gets tired of hearing customers (or casino hosts) complain about the food at their fancy restaurant. “Would it hurt them to put a scallop dish on the menu?” the refrain usually goes, or “If it’s Italian, why isn’t there any pizza? My kids wanted pizza and I just dropped 50gs at the craps table fer chrissakes.”

Silly boy, I thought to myself. I should’ve bet him a bottle of Barolo it will happen…but I respect the guy too much to take his money.

Yes, Marc, your cuisine is stellar, and the room is gorgeous, the service is precise, and on any given night you might be running the first and second best Italian restaurants in America. But that doesn’t mean people won’t want you to dumb yourself down for the sake of the good old dollar.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

VETRI CUCINA

Palms Hotel and Casino

4321 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.944.5900

http://www.palms.com/vetri-cucina.html

 

The (Food) Year in Review 2018

Image may contain: 1 person, table and outdoor
Hay-Seuss Friggin’ Christie! What a wild ride!

What started with a whimper ended with a bang, and not since the glory years of 1998-2008 have we seen such a watershed of good eats arrive in our humble burg in such a short period of time.

Two years ago we were bored out of our skull and complaining about the moribund nature of our Strip and local dining scene. In the span of 12 short months, all of that kvetching got canned, and now we’re like a kid in a candy store.

Consider the following:

The year began with Esther’s Kitchen debut downtown — it was a hit from the get-go.

Spago closed in January (sigh) after 25 years in the Forum Shops.

The next six months would see Pizzeria Monzú, Pamplona, Jammyland, Partage, Mordeo, and EDO Tapas & Wine, all open in rapid succession.

Spago then re-opened at the Bellagio. (hooray!)

DE Kitchen brought another excellent (tiny) Thai to downtown.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos served up platters of Ensenada excellence right on Las Vegas Boulevard.

China Mama came back from the dead.

(Beef roll at China Mama_

Nuro Bistro brought Hainanese chicken to the ‘burbs.

Michael Mina re-booted itself into Restaurant of the Year status.

Scotch 80 Prime re-imagined the old N9NE steakhouse as a major league whisky bar-cum-meat emporium, and in one fell swoop vaulted to the top tier of our prime steak locations.

All of it was almost enough to get me over the loss of Carnevino in July.

Then things settled down for a few months, before a blizzard of fab food hit the Strip — the first time in a long time for such an influx.   November 2018  might go down as one of our greatest milestone months, as it saw Cipriani, NoMad (both the bar and the restaurant), Vetri, and Mabel’s all spring to life.

(By our calculations, the last time so many great restaurants opened at once was December 15, 2010, when The Cosmopolitan threw open its doors revealing the likes of Jaleo, Scarpetta, D.O.C.G., China Poblano, Estiatorio Milos, STK and Blue Ribbon.)

And, the cherry on top of this sundae was Eataly opening this week.

We took a break from this blog on April 1st, but by mid-August there was so much to write about we couldn’t keep up.

If things weren’t tasty enough around here, we went to Italy (twice), Nantucket for the umpteenth time, and even wedged in trips to New York, L.A., and Washington D.C..

Then, we even found the time to update the 7th edition of  EATING LAS VEGASThe 52 Essential Restaurants, which, coincidentally, was published this week.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

Yes, it was a busy twelve months.

As good as the offerings on the Strip are, it’s no secret to anyone that the explosion in quality neighborhood eateries has been the big news this year. Not for nothing did Partage, EDO and Esther’s share Restaurant of the Year honors, and new developments in Chinatown (and Bank Atcharawan’s upcoming wine-centric Lamaii) promises even more adventures in the year ahead.

Put them all together and there’s plenty to keep even the most voracious gourmand busy for months.

Make no mistake, most of these Strip newcomers are simply the most current links in well-developed chains. The outlier is Vetri — only the second restaurant with the chef’s name on it — and one getting his full attention these days. It may be the most polished Italian food Las Vegas has ever seen. It is certainly the most stunning. How locals and tourists alike react to his blend of tradition-meets-modern-deliciousness will be interesting to watch. (Our full reviews of it and NoMad will be coming out in January.)

How much wine and cheese and beef Eataly sells (as opposed to grab-and-go sandwiches, coffee, pizza and snacks) will also be mighty interesting to see.

Before we go, we cannot sign off for the year without remembering the losses the culinary world suffered. Both Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon died in 2018, as did that magnificent bastard Anthony Bourdain. The marks all of them left on the food world, are indelible. The restaurant empires of Bocuse and Robuchon will soldier on without them, but we shall not see the likes of them again, not in Las Vegas, not in my lifetime.

Robuchon once got misty-eyed describing to me the simple, grilled seafood he found in a seaside restaurant south of Barcelona. It was almost a perfect meal, he said (though an interpreter), nothing more than the freshest fish grilled over embers bathed in the ocean mist. He did that thing French chefs do when they half close their eyes and bring their fingers to their mouths to signal perfection, and I could see the elemental glory of great food shining in those eyes.

That the greatest chef on the planet could be moved by a simple piece of fish said a lot about him, and his glow in describing it has stayed with me for thirteen years. It was the first thing I remembered when I heard he had passed away in August — his beatific elation at having having found completeness in a simple meal. The elemental act of feeding ourselves becoming a transcendent meld of our lives and nature. Many times in the past few months I have pondered the visceral connection between Robuchon and the natural world he conveyed to me that day. Sadly, we restaurant customers too often forget how tied to the land and sea chefs really are. The good ones anyway.

 

Image may contain: 3 people, including John Curtas, people smiling(JR and JC 2006)

I would run into JR many more times over the years, and he always gave me a big hug, and always jabbered away in French that I could barely understand. (It usually had to do with me being the first American writer to actually review his American restaurants.)  The Food Gal® and I even ran into him  briefly at the 2017 Bocuse d’Or and joked around with him for a few minutes.

He and Bocuse (and Bourdain, for that matter), had that quintessentially French combination of being intense and bombastic but also a bit shy. Being French, they considered great food a religion to be worshiped, and being who they were they would want their legacies to be remembered by people enjoying their meals to the utmost, prepared by people who really care about it.

As we embark on a new year, we should honor them by basking in the glow of all these sensational eats that are now on our doorstep. Las Vegas has come a long way in twenty years. Our avenues are teaming with some of the best restaurant food in America, both simple and sophisticated. You may never be as religious about it as Chef Robuchon was, but just like most religions, you can never go wrong by trying to live up to the ideals they represent.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

(The bar at Vetri)