A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099

 

 

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

 

Enough Already 2018

It’s that time of the year, food fans: when the winter solstice descends and our mood grows dark and our prophesies portend.

When our thoughts turn not to festive merriment or seasonal meetings, but to over-baked puddings and gristly greetings.

Yes, it is when we are duty-bound to scream to the heavens,  for the world to hear, no matter how it  might frighten some timid reindeer.

These are the trends we hope soon to end…so that the New Year we pray…can finally make amends.

So without further ado, although some are not new, I hereby say to you:

ENOUGH ALREADY…

Smoked anything

Unless your name is Sonny and you’re tending a hickory pit, lose the smoke. Please.

Wood-fired everything

Yeah yeah yeah….you saw that dude on that Netflix series and he looked like some kind of god chopping his own wood and cooking everything but his profiteroles over it…but the whole idea only works if you’re, you know, like living out in the fucking forest or something. You’re not Paul Bunyan and most of that smoke gets sucked out the oven (thanks, health department!) before it even comes close to flavoring the vittles.

Craft IPAs

We get it: IPAs are cooler than lagers and you can hop them higher than a smack addict in the South Bronx (circa1971), but that doesn’t mean they taste good.

Sour beers

Leave them to the Belgians, please

Steakflation

The aged strip steak at Bavette’s was priced at a whopping $73 when it opened over the summer. Within three months they raised the price to $78. The original price was about 10% higher than the cost of the same steak in Chicago. The new price bumped that to a 20% premium. In Vegas, which is a much smaller town than Chicago, with (supposedly) a much cheaper cost of living (and labor force). Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Las Vegas isn’t the most expensive restaurant town in the country. It is also not a place to chow down on giant steaks anymore, unless you like taking your serious steaks where the sun don’t shine.

Pizza fetishization

With apologies to good friends John Arena, Mike Vakeen, Scott Wiener, Vincent Rotolo, Gio Mauro, Chris Decker, and a dozen others…the whole artisanal pizza thing has jumped the shark. As Steve Cuozzo says in the New York Post, the humble pie has been warped by the whole ‘”authenticity” thing…or cruel mutation.

Brussels sprouts and Beets

Chefs: we know you are duty bound to put edible plants out there, but can’t you find something else to round out your proteins?

Crazily-flavored ice creams

(This is what ice cream is supposed to look like)

Was the world begging for broccoli ice cream? Were orphans crying out for tuna fish gelato? What began as a novelty 4-5 years ago is now a tsunami of bad taste. Only the Instagram generation could ruin something as un-ruin-able as ice cream.

Caviar on everything

Caviar used to be a luxury food. Now it’s more ubiquitous than a Kardashian ass. There’s a reason chefs put it on things: to give the illusion of grandeur….when all they’re really doing is spooning some not-very-expensive farmed fish eggs from China, Brazil, Spain, etc. onto some dish that, 80% of the time, would be better without it. Duping the credulous hordes? You bet! Padding the bill? Absolutely! Worth it? Hardly ever. If I want fish eggs, I’ll eat them off a mother of pearl spoon all by themselves.

Liquor/Food matches

It’s gotten beyond ridiculous: Come to our four-course dinner paired with….Johnny Walker Scotch! Have you ever tried aged rum with rigatoni? Brandy with sea bass? Here we are, a restaurant on a slow night (usually a Tuesday), and some liquor distributor has talked our chef into preparing a wonderful multi-course extravaganza all based around….MEZCAL! Trying to drum up enthusiasm for a high-proof spirit by (ill) matching it with food is the worst idea since the canned cheeseburger.

Short ribs/beef cheeks

Both are the cupcakes of the savory world. Victims of endless permutations that rarely make sense, and so filling they rarely inspire a second bite. Beef cheek ravioli is the ultimate belt-and-suspenders combination that does an injustice to both.

Things in bowls

Here’s the short list of things you should eat in a ginormous bowl: Vietnamese pho, Chinese noodles, and weird Korean soups.

Eating in the dark

I actually liked the two meals I had at Bavette’s. I couldn’t see them, but I liked them.

Eating when you can’t hear

I know, I know: you want your restaurant to have a “party” vibe. Because everyone knows adults go out to eat not to put finely-cooked food in their mouths, but rather to “party”….just like the kids do…at Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone knows the drill now: you’ve got the restaurant pumped to ear-splitting levels to turn tables and sell more booze. You’re not fooling anyone anymore. Let’s all grow up a bit, shall we? It’s 2019, not 2010.

Chefs’ groovy “playlists”

If there’s been one benefit to the downfall of Mario Batali, it’s been that a chef imposing his musical tastes on his guests has finally lost whatever “cool” factor it once had.

900 bottles of booze on the wall

I love what they did to Scotch 80 Prime. I really like that gorgeous wall of 1,000 bottles behind the bar. I love the same thing at Sage and the hundreds of terrific tequilas at La Comida. But we’ve gotten into an arms race here both with the makers of strong booze and the restaurants that sell them. And it’s ridiculous. The world doesn’t need a thousand brands of tequila, and it got along just fine with a hundred quality scotches and a few dozen good bourbons. I don’t know what’s worse: the hyper-specificity (“aged in 37 year old fino sherry casks, consisting of re-toasted Andalusian birch bark bathed in the sweat of Rob Roy’s old peat marsh and only released by the light of a full moon in August”), or the con job promoted by the makers of “extremely rare” whiskys. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that grown men (some of whom may be reading these words), couldn’t tell Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old from a dozen other premium brands. Hell, I bet the distiller himself couldn’t tell. That doesn’t keep them from perpetuating the myth of its “special-ness” when all it is is another fucking aged 90 proof whisky. Double yeesh.

Cannabis in your comestibles

If I want to get stoned, I’ll smoke a joint, thank you.

__________________________________________________________________________

A curmudgeon we may be, but a light we yonder see.

Some good things have returned, and for these we must no longer yearn.

And lest we be thought of as too persnickety, by jove we’re all excited about each of these most lickity.

Welcome back:

Grown-up dining

NoMad, Cipriani, Partage, and Vetri (above) are places for people with worldly palates, or aspirations to same. They are not for the party-as-a-verb crowd. Eataly is for those who either know about real Italian food, or want to learn about it. Uncomfortable chairs and small plates are not part of these equations.

Reasonable, thoughtful wine lists

As I’ve said before: the Las Vegas Strip is no place to find wine bargains, but the newbies on the block —   NoMad, Cipriani, and Vetri — all boast lists with plenty of drinkable bottles for under a hundy.  Mordeo, Partage, Sparrow + Wolf, and most of all, Esther’s Kitchen , all have bottles galore that are priced to sell, not show off.

Simple, elegant cocktails

Thank you, Jammyland, and continued thanks to the simple, elegant cocktails at NoMad, Scotch 80 Prime, Esther’s Kitchen and Vetri for continuing to stress simple sophistication over the complex and contrived..

Guéridons

Because who doesn’t love a rolling cart full of tasty delights?

Tableside pyrotechnics

Because who doesn’t love a performance with their food?

Dessert carts

Partage!!

Dressed up waiters

Cipriani!!

Real Italian food

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca at Vetri)

Has come roaring back into town. (see above)

Roast Chicken

Merci beaucoup, Daniel Humm.

Cheese

Molto grazie, Marc Vetri for including a cheese course with your nonpareil cuisine.

Good Barbecue

Sin City Smokers (above) sets the standard in the ‘burbs, Mabel’s brings a slice of authentic Austin to the Strip. Smoked meats are back with a vengeance. Everything else in town isn’t worth your time or the heartburn.

(Platter at Mabel’s)
HAPPY NEW YEAR from the staff at Being John Curtas:
Image result for Top hat and tails