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

 

 

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

Hello Grappa!

Image may contain: drink
(Ed. note: As I will be in Italy this week (Lake Garda and Venice), I thought your grappa edification ought to be enhanced. Sip, savor, and enjoy, and I’ll start posting again once I return to Las Vegas. Cin cin!)

Grappa has an image problem. As the old joke goes, tell someone you bought a bottle of grappa on a motor trip through Italy, and they’ll ask you if you got a second one to re-fuel your car.

“Harsh.” “Rocket fuel.” “Great for stripping paint,” are but a few of the insults heaped upon grappa over the years, and to be honest about it, much of what was distilled for most of the 20th Century fit the descriptors. There is no doubt that grappa was low born — it is said to have been used by peasant farm workers to warm them up and dull the pain of their daily grind in the fields — but there’s been a new wave afoot for a few decades now, and what is showing up on shelves and wine lists (in Italy and elsewhere) reflects a maturity of spirit that can be as compelling and complex as any eau de vie or brandy.

My introduction to high quality grappa occurred fifteen years ago, by happenstance at the end of a meal at the Ristorante Sabatini in Rome. Having seen the beautiful bottles on the grappa cart as we entered, my party of three wanted to try three different ones. But the language barrier being what it was, all our waiter heard was that the three of us each wanted to sample three different grappas. Before we knew what was happening, nine different bottles appeared on the table. A lot of amusing consternation followed, which ended with us happily agreeing to try the entire array. (As the saying goes: When in Rome….)  Nine sips later, each of us was hooked, and now I can’t think of ending an Italian meal any other way.

Grappa is Italy’s contribution to what are called pomace brandies — spirits distilled from the pomace (leftover seeds, pulp and skins) of the wine making process.  Arabs may have invented the distillation process (well over a thousand years ago), but it is in prominent wine regions of the world where these spirits have achieved preeminence. Every French wine producing region has its distinctive marc (pronounced “mahr”) as do Spain (where it’s called orujo) and Greece (tsipouro). By way of contrast, German schnapps and Alsatian eau de vie are made from a the juice or mash of culinary fruits, while brandy is distilled directly from wine — the fermented fruit juice of grapes. Like all digestivos, grappa is usually taken at the end of a meal, although some Italians like to spike their morning espresso with a shot of the stuff, to make what is called a caffé corretto (“corrected coffee”).

Grappa’s evolution from hoi polloi hooch to respected sipping for the landed gentry started in northern Italy after World War II. History tells us that Italy’s first distillery was set up in 1779 in the Venetian town now known as Bassano del Grappa. But grappa didn’t go upscale until the 1960s when, as part of Italy’s postwar resurgence, Benito Nonino popularized the use of a discontinuous still (also known as batch distillation) and began making single varietal grappas that contributed a sophisticated kick to the Italian food that was then conquering the globe.

To make the finest grappa, one first acquires the freshest possible pomace and distills it as soon as possible so that no aromatics are lost. The distillation is done in a discontinuous still to preserve as much character from these single varietal, small batches as possible. Then the cut of the distillation is narrowed as much as possible (eliminating the “heads” and the “tails” which contain impurities) to maximize bouquet and minimize bitterness.. Narrowing all of these parameters limits the yield while raising quality, resulting in a refined product whose cost belies its humble origins.

Because of early pioneers like Nonino and Jacopo Poli, grappa has now taken its rightful place at the digestivo table, and great grappas can be found in Italian restaurants and wine stores across America. The original pioneers are still going strong, but right along side them are other excellent grappas — many of them aged in wood — from the great wine making regions of Italy, and I recently had the privilege of tasting some of the best, right where they are made.

Image may contain: indoor(The way grappa used to be made)

At the Bonollo Distillery in Torrita di Siena, we received an immersion in grappa (figuratively speaking), that included a class, a tour, and a taste of three of their best varieties. Bonollo is a huge operation, with five distilleries set along the spine of the Apennines, but it is here in Tuscany where they process the remains of Sangiovese grapes that produce the fabulous Chiantis and Brunellos of the region. The first grappa we tasted, however, was made with the pomace of the sweet, perfumed Moscato grape. It was a revelation, especially to anyone who equates grappa with fire water. White wine grapes often produce the most aromatic grappas, and this one was no different, bringing forth a strong nose of sweet jasmine, honeysuckle and honey. Those dominant floral aromas exemplify the art of extracting just the right amount of scented fruit from the raw material.

Image may contain: drink(The grappas of Bonollo – worth seeking out)

After this “entry level” grappa, we proceeded to a spirit made from Chianti Classico Riserva pomace. Where Moscato makes the most wine-like grappa, the fruit fragrances become more elusive when you move into red wine grapes. In place of being fruit-forward, here grappa becomes richer, drier, rounder, and more complex. With strong cheese and nuts, Moscato grappa would be a delight; Chianti grappa begs for chocolate and dried fruit. As a finale, we tasted the riserva Consenso grappa, aged in three kinds of wood (ash, cherry, and oak) and it was the most brandy-like of the bunch: lighter in color than true brandy perhaps, but hauntingly rich and very smooth. With this one, I’d smoke a cigar…if I smoked.

No automatic alt text available.(This is not grappa – this is the biggest winery I’ve ever seen)

Working our way north, the Castello Banfi winery was our next stop. Italian law prohibits grappa and wine from being made in the same place, so Banfi ships its grape pomace to the Bonollo Distillery for distillation according to its specifications. Before we got to the grappa, however, we were treated to a tour of Banfi’s vineyards (huge, as in as far as the eye can see), and its winery (jaw-dropping-ly ginormous) and a barrel tasting of 2017 Brunellos, and a sampling the best of 2012 and 2013 vintages of Banfi’s best Brunello di Montalcinos — Poggio Alle Mura and Poggio All’Oro — all of them big, rich, teeth-coating wines, redolent of black fruits, chocolate and tobacco, with that extra dimension of deep, dark, dusty earth that signifies the Sangiovese grape at its best. (Next to these big boys, many California cabernets come off tasting like a store-bought cherry pie.)

Image may contain: 4 people, people sitting, table and indoor(Barrel tasting ’17 Brunellos with the legendary John Mariani)

Following the tours and the tasting was a private lunch with legendary founder John Mariani (no relation to our very own legendary John Mariani), and then it was on to even more grappa. The first two Banfi bottles (Grappa del Castello and Grappa di Brunello – pictured at top of the page) were very traditional, in that they were assertive, clean on the finish, and mostly alcohol-forward, while the latter two (Grappa di Brunello and the Poggio alle Mura Riserva) displayed the hints of fruit and complex aromas associated with more modern bottlings. Eighteen months in oak contributed a deep bronze color as well as vanilla and spice flavors to the Riserva, and no doubt, this is the grappa you would break out to impress your friends.

Northeastern Italy is where grappa began, and the Veneto region is where modern grappa became famous, but the production and consumption is in full flower farther west in the Piemonte as well. The Mazzetti distillery in Altavilla, Monferrato (about a half hour outside of Asti) has been in business since 1846. It is still family-owned, and is now run by the seventh generation of the Mazzetti family. All Mazzetti grappa are distilled in steam copper stills using the discontinuous method. This small batch approach is applied to twelve single grape grappas, as well as ten “special blends” and six “riserva” bottlings. All of these products are on display in a combination tasting room, cafe, and gift shop on the ground floor of the distillery which is the closest thing to a grappa candy store as you’ll ever see.

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, drink and indoor(The trouble with Italians is they’re not good looking enough)

With Elise Belvedere Mazzetti and Claudio Galletto (above) as our guides, we proceeded to make a serious dent in those selections — tasting nine different varieties — ranging from another entry-level, heavily perfumed Moscato grappa, to their Incontro — made from Nebbiolo grapes and aged in 225 liter barriques. If there was one thing I learned from all this tasting it was the appreciation of how wood-aging brings a softer and smoother profile to this formerly fiery spirit. Nowhere was that more noticeable than in Mazzetti’s 7.0 bottle (named for the seven generations of the family in the business). Made from the relatively scarce Ruche red grape, exclusive to the Asti region of Italy, this grappa showed a gentler, softer and smoother side than the non-aged single varietals.

Once we got to the more prestigious Gaia and Segni Grappa Riserva bottles, the aromatics were much more assertive, and the finish a lot mellower. The Segni Riserva obtains its brandy-like complexity from spending five years in six different wooden barrels, with the sizes generally decreasing over time until smaller mulberry and juniper barrels are used to finish off the aging. This technique mimics how aceto balsamico is produced, and the final product is a clean and haunting spirit that could stand shoulder to shoulder with a V.S.O.P. brandy. Indeed, this is the one grappa that was served to us in a wider-mouthed snifter, the better to appreciate all that wood seasoning.

Obviously, these are not your grandfather’s grappas. Make no mistake, they are still are strong  drinks (between 35-45% alcohol, i.e., 70 -90 proof), but the varietal character of the grape comes through, which makes side-by-side sipping so fascinating. Grappa is generally served in a bulbous-shaped glass with a slightly flared rim — the better to let its concentrated aromas open up at the lip. The glasses are small because grappa is supposed to be enjoyed in very small amounts. The point of today’s grappa is not to get drunk or sooth your weary bones. Instead, it is to appreciate the distiller’s art — how they can extract the alcoholic essence of decomposing wine grapes, and turn them into something so pure and so distinctly Italian.

Image may contain: indoor(Just what every man needs – his own desktop distillery)