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

 

 

The List

(Lamaii)

Every few months we publish “The List” for two reasons: 1) to keep a constant update of our research for the next EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants edition; and 2) to brag to you, our loyal readers, about how we eat in more restaurants, more often, than anyone in Las Vegas — now or in the history of our humble burg.

This list is a bit incredible, even by our trencherman standards — over 50 places in a little more than two months, many of which we’ve been to more than once. It is one of our biggest blitzes ever, all brought about by an invasion of good taste the likes of which we haven’t seen around here in thirteen years.

I thought 2018 was a watershed year of good restaurants arriving on our shores(?), but from the looks of things, 2019 could top it.

All of it makes for a lot of mastication…all in the service of determining who will be new to our top 52 come this fall…

As usual, all restaurants are randomly listed and come highly recommended unless otherwise noted (an asterisk means I’ve been there more than once recently):

THE LIST

ManzoDon’t call it Carnevino-lite. It’s its own thing (above) and that thing is a world-class Italian steakhouse.

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos – When you need to inhale a little Ensendada.

Soho Japanese Restaurant – Serious south side sushi + amazing omakase.

NoMad*I shall return to NoMad one of these days to see if the service has improved…after I figure out a way to sneak in.

NoMad Bar*That hamburger and that hot dog.

Andiron Steak and SeafoodFun brunch, fun making fun of all those self-impressed Summerlin-ers. “Oh look, honey! They have FRENCH champagne here! I hear it’s good!”

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Other Mama – Can it get any better? (see sashimi above)

Honey SaltHolding its own against an ersatz Italian (North), that’s packed with SUV-driving, vapid Summerlin saps (but I repeat myself) all day long. P.S. I’ve eaten at North too, but I’m too embarrassed to talk about it.

Mabel’s BBQ*I find myself craving Mabel’s ‘cue…and I haven’t craved Vegas ‘cue in a coon’s age.

Mott 32*So much cleavage is on display I’ve taken to calling it Mott 32D. (This is not a bad thing.) Right now, might be the best Chinese in town. Correction: right now it IS the best Chinese restaurant in town.

Lamaii* – Two pre-opening visits have me hungering for more.

The Factory Kitchen* – Been twice, need to get back, love everything about it except the industrial decor. Superb pastas and a winning wine list.

Saga Sandwiches + Pastry – Scandinavian sandwiches in Henderson? Yep, and they’re great. Chef Gert has a tough road to hoe, competing with 3,000 other places to eat on Eastern Ave., but this natty little Norwegian is very very nice.

China Mama* – Praise the lord and pass the xiao long bao! This place has returned to its former glory.

Scotch 80 Prime* Barry Dakake puts out a menu of classics backed up by a whiskey bar par excellence. The decor is also a vast improvement over the previous steakhouse-which-shall-not-be-named.

(Spicy sesame noodles at Fat Choy)

Fat Choy – Congrats to Sheridan Su on his James Beard nomination!

Lawry’s The Prime Rib – The name says it all. Old school in all the best ways. With service that never misses a beat.

BBD’s – Burgers, Beer and Desserts*Best. Burgers. In. Vegas.

Forte Tapas Is back on my radar. Where it hasn’t been in a long time. Maybe it’s the caviar. Maybe it’s because I’m secretly in love with Nina Manchev. ;-)

Spago*It may sound like heresy, but Spago might be a better restaurant now than it was at Caesars Palace. The people watching isn’t as good, but the view is better and the menu is tighter.

Sparrow + WolfBetter than ever.

EATTNew decor now fits the consistently excellent  French food. A neighborhood gem from top to bottom with nicely priced wine, and oh those desserts!

John Mull’s Meats and Road Kill Grill – Never again. You have been warned…even though it doesn’t do any good to warn you because you (the slack-jawed hordes) will still flock here (because Guy Fieri), but the place is terrible.

(Mordeo)
MordeoMay have the best steak off the Strip. They’re aging them right before your eyes and they’re something to behold. The wine list is on its way to becoming a local treasure.

Esther’s Kitchen*I’ve lost count of my meals here, and it’s only been open a little more than a year. The bar, those amaros, Sonia, the pizzas, the sandwiches, Paul, James….it’s pretty much become a semi-private club for me and a few hundred downtown foodies.

Ohlala French BistroAnother place too far from my palatial manse that I wish I visited more often.

Siam Square – New Thai downtown; the food was good, but not good enough to lure me away from Ocha Thai or D E Thai Kitchen.

Aloha Specialties Hawaiians eat so much white food it’s a wonder their bowels ever move. Belly bombs like Kahlua pig and Loco Moco won’t help, either, but they’re damn tasty…as are the bento boxes.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – There’s not a better off-Strip Italian in town, and very few on-Strip that measure up.

Yui Edomae Sushi1-2 with Kabuto for local sushi superiority.

Wing Lei* I’ve had two meals here recently and three at Mott 32. There’s no denying the beauty of Wing Lei, but the Beijing duck is better at Mott.

Vetri* – Philly’s best is now our best. And oh that view. (Look closely at the pic above – it’s a reflection of me taking a snap out the window.)

Jammyland – Come for the rum, stay for the Jamaican food.

Carson KitchenMay have lost its edge, but can still stun you with an occasional special.

Pop Up PizzaA great, simple pizzeria (serving nothing but slices and garlic knots) in search of a hotel that appreciates it.

PublicUs*Great coffee, wonderful bread, so so food (there, I said it). Those cream cheese scones, though.

Vesta Coffee*My coffee hangout.

Desert Wind Coffee Roasters – My coffee hangout outside my ‘hood.

Them’s a lot to chew on…but does that mean we’re done?

Gird your loins, pilgrim, we’re just getting started:

(Today’s thing that looks like a face)

Delices Gourmands*My go-to for croissants, baguettes, pistachio rolls, and canelés de Bordeaux. (above) There ought to be a line out the door for these baked goods.

DelmonicoStill humming after all these years (20 to be exact). Hasn’t lost a beat, or the best Caesar in the business.

Strip SteakI’d eat at SS once a week if it was easier to get to and didn’t feel like a bus station.

Charlie Palmer Steak Just nibbles at the bar, but they were a cut above.

Le PhoLe ginormous bowls of beef noodle soups are boring to me. But the rest of the menu, and the bánh mí, are not.

(Kanomjeen Namya Pu – yellow curry crab)

D E Thai Kitchen* – Street Thai in a teeny tiny space that I’ve now been to five times in three months. Yes, it’s that good, as you can see above.

Cipriani* – Another place I consistently crave.

New Asian BBQ*Good not great dim sum, a nice additional option when you’re craving a quick lunch on Spring Mountain Road. So full of fellow travelers (Asians) gwailo (you) will feel like a rabbi at an Arkansas pig roast. Which is as it should be.

Ocha Thai – Old-style Thai the polar opposite of teeny tiny DE down the street (large, big menu, booze) but always satisfying, and the house-made sausages alone are worth the trip.

The Goodwich* – I love the sandwiches here but I wish they were on better bread.

La Comida – Doesn’t have the verve or the consistency it once did. Feels like it’s just going through the motions. I fear I have had my last meal here.

No photo description available.

Raku If Raku were located anywhere but Las Vegas, it would be considered the best izakaya in the country.

White Castle – Because even snooty food critics go slumming once in a while.

Shake Shack – Because it’s better than In-N-Out. Don’t argue with me about this.

In-N-Out Burger – I still love my double-double, but the fries do suck.

Del Taco – The Double Del is one of the great, unsung fast food burgers in America. A guilty pleasure.

POTsEgypt goes vegan, and it’s good….if a bit limited. Have owner Iman explain the name. A charming little addition to our food scene.

Nuro Bistro – The Hainanese rice is even better than the chicken, and the chicken is spectacular. You’d better like chicken, though.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Hand-pulled awesomesauce.

La Cantine – Serious sandwiches in the northwest.

(New York Bagel N Bakery)

New York Bagel N Bakery – Some of you may remember the Montesano family who operated a quality Italian deli on Sahara back in the 90s. I don’t know where they went, but they’re back and they’ve given this sad little bakery a serious upgrade. Everything is baked on premises and the bagels kick the ass of whatever you think is good.

I know what you’re thinking: Did he go to 48 restaurants or 54? Well to tell you the truth, in all the excitement, I sorta lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 caliber palate, the most powerful mandibles ever made, and could blow your mealy mouth clean off, you have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky?

Well, do you, punk?

The Best Burger in Town

America’s obsession with juvenile food is subsiding.

Press your ear (or stomach) to the ground (as we do) and you’ll find the food media paying scant attention to tacos, pizzas and burgers these days.

People aren’t going apeshit over ramen like they were five years ago, cupcakes have been consigned to the corner (where they belong), small plates are sooo 2014, and Brobdingnagian milk shakes have been marginalized.

With any luck, perhaps one of these days the New York Times will end its decade-long love affair with David Chang.

In the meantime, Chang and his bao buns notwithstanding, grown up dining has returned. Classics are back.

If you require evidence, just look at what’s opened here in the past few months. Cipriani, Vetri and NoMad are nothing if not throwback dining experiences. Look past the modern industrial look of Factory Kitchen and what you’ll find is a classic Italian meal. The only thing modern about Mott 32 is the decor and the cocktail program.

Heck, some of these places even offer cheese at the end of your meal. How fin de siecle is that?

But some things never go out of style, and a great burger is one of them.

Amidst all the Eataly anticipation at the end of the year, a sizeable (300 seat) meat emporium quietly opened in the Palace Station hotel. Called BBD’s (Beers, Burgers, Desserts) it brought forth a gargantuan menu of everything from burgers and steaks to amazing bowls of duck ramen ($18) to never-seen-before dishes like Buffalo burnt chicken wings ($13):

On top of those, it also features probably the best beer selection in town (notice I said “best” not “biggest”), fried pickles and hot chicken. There’s a Philly cheese steak served with smoked onions ($15 and excellent) , a one-pound Bavarian pretzel, and even lamb gyros for those so inclined.

But the real stars of the show are the burgers. Three are offered: the dry-aged prime steakhouse burger ($19), a griddle burger ($10 single, $14 double) that seeks (and succeeds) at elevating the In-N-Out burger template, and a steamed burger ($8 single, $12 double) mimicking the chopped onion, grey meat magnificence of a White Castle slider.

They offer 20(!) different sauces (all made in-house), potatoes a number of ways (the classic french fries above, are potato perfection), three salads (who gives a fuck?), and the usual frivolous fat-filled fried stuff (onion rings, poppers, cheese sticks and such).

But your attention is drawn to the meat from the moment you walk past the butcher shop at the entrance, and that’s where your gaze should stay.

Those burgers are each superb. Made with in-house ground beef, juicy and packed with the kind of dense, mineral-rich beefiness that is but a wisp of memory in the hamburgers most people consume. I’ve said for years: the best burgers are always found in good steakhouses, because good steakhouses use the best beef and treat it right.

The beef here tastes like it could’ve come straight from Delmonico or CUT. The grind is coarse and the packing is just firm enough to hold together and sear properly, the better to retain the juiciness essential for proper burger apotheosis. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted better.

Seasonings are on-point, too, telling you that someone in the kitchen is paying close attention to the details.

As much as well love all of the cheeseburgers here, I have to admit the steamed mini-burgers (above) are my favorite. They taste like what White Castles would be if they were 3xs thicker, used great meat sandwiched in a superior bun and satisfied your cravings without laying in your stomach like a cheap, greasy brick. (The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been parking booze in your gut all night.)

Those minis are not to be missed, but neither are any of these meat patty sandwiches. The beef in the dry-aged prime burger (above) is aged for 40-50 days and achieves that tinge of umami-laden gaminess true beef aficionados look for. The grilled beauties (not pictured) are next-level delicious as well — one bite and you might forswear In-N-Out forever.

Put them all together and you have a hamburger hamlet of unbridled greatness, the likes of which Vegas has never seen under one roof.

All of this is the handiwork of one Ralph Perrazzo — a Long Island chef (and Bradley Ogden alum) who won some burger battle on some food network show, paving the way for his expansion to Vegas. Sorry Ralph, but I don’t take those shows very seriously anymore, but your food is the real deal, and whether it’s juvenile or fashionable or not, I intend to eat many more of your burgers, and take them very very seriously while doing so.

(A burger lunch or dinner for two, without booze, should run between $25-$50, depending on how many sides or appetizers you tackle. The beer selection is for serious suds lovers.)

BBD’s

Palace Station Hotel and Casino

2411 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.221.6513

https://eatbbds.com/experience/