What’s New In Vegas – Part Deux

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You can’t talk about Las Vegas without mentioning Circa. A modern behemoth on the western end of Fremont Street, it is the first major hotel/casino to open downtown in forty years.

It sits at the far western terminus of Fremont, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel, and across the street from the Golden Gate — Las Vegas’s oldest hotel. To say it brings a breath of fresh air to the run-down environs of downtown is like saying a Rolls Royce adds a touch of class to a drag race.

The resort has gone all-in on sports betting and pool-lounging, with Olympic-sized video screens indoors and out. The effect in the sports book is one of immersion: bringing the hi-def athletes so close to the viewer they appear larger than life.

The Legacy Club and rooftop pool have quickly become attractions in their own right, and on the second floor you’ll find two very different restaurants, side-by-side, which are two of the best of their kind anywhere in town. In the basement is the show pony — a new high-steaks entry in our beef emporium wars.

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Barry’s Downtown Prime

Could a new gilded age be upon us? One look at Barry’s and you’d think so. All brass, glass and sass, the decor echoes the 70s (a fern bar without ferns springs to mind) with its gleaming surfaces inset with oversized booths. It is a huge (300+ seats), underground space, but the muted lighting (and the way they’ve chopped it up), creates a certain clubby intimacy. What it has also created in a few short months is buzz — the sort of vibe that spreads like jello shots through a day club.

What Barry’s has in spades is the sort of steakhouse-as-nightclub atmosphere first perfected at N9NE in the Palms, and then carried forth by the STK Steakhouse chain (a meat market as concerned with beefcake and babes as it is with its beef).

Now, it’s a well-known fact that celebrities, short skirts and superior sustenance go together about as well as chocolate chips and shrimp. An inviolable alimentary axiom posits that the quality of the cuisine always is inversely proportional to the number of hot chicks at the bar. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

(Parenthetical digression: last month I went on a barbecue tour of Eastern North Caroline (the spiritual home of whole hog ‘cue), and there wasn’t a babe within 30 miles of the smokehouse. FACT. You won’t find any cleavage or clippy-cloppy stilettos at a New England lobster shack, either.)

The point is: the food at Barry’s is beside the point. It’s really just a placeholder for having a good time. Chef Barry Dakake made a name for himself (and perfected this template) at N9NE at the Palms. Now he’s gone underground to take his steak fame to another level.

Image(Rib cap with mandatory shishitos)

Dakake knows how to make a steakhouse good but not too good. This is not to damn him with faint praise but to admire his tightrope walking/business acumen. Barry’s doesn’t want fussy gastronomes sniffing around; it wants big wallets and big egos prowling for hot trim. Eventually, it will turn into a Lavo, Tao (or the aforementioned STK), and it’s only a matter of time before it is crawling with hockey and football players. Until then, it is a worthy addition to the Vegas steak roster.

The aforementioned bar has plenty of top-shelf booze and expensive cocktails to whet your whistle. Pound down a couple for a cool forty bucks, and then check out the wine list.

To be fair, it was conceived in a pandemic and executed in a panic so you can forgive its lack of imagination. Prices are high (but not pre-Covid Strip high); interesting bottles are few and far between. To give you an idea: a $24 of Nozzole Chianti Classico will set you back $70. Nothing is under fifty bucks and good bottles for under a hundy are harder to find than a collared shirt in the casino. Settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir or some weak-ass Merlot, or bring your own if you don’t mind a fifty buck corkage.

With those preliminaries out of the way, it’ll be time to tuck into the menu. Prepare yourself for the shockingly bad (gummy-flabby lobster potstickers), the bizarrely bad (a “real” garbage salad, appropriately named), and the could-be better (a bland steak tartare)…as well as the usual steak suspects.

Venture too far from the herd and a mixed bag awaits. A braised short rib in an eye-opening harissa-mint sauce wins “best in class” no matter whose you compare it to. But then there’s a Mary’s Farm organic chicken both voluminous and sloppy. (Adorned with a prosciutto “crisp” of no consequence other than to impress the rubes.)

The $76 Dover sole is good….but not $76 good, and I can’t recommend the salmon. Not because I didn’t like it, but because ordering salmon in a steakhouse is like going to a bordello for a back rub. AMIRITE?

Image(This filet slays)

Dakake doesn’t know how to make a bad steak, so you’re on solid turf if you decide to skip the surf. Everything is flawlessly charred, slightly smokey and seasoned so well that saucing them becomes an afterthought. All meat comes at a price and with a pedigree, but even the 8 oz., $56 filet (above) is a succulent slice of superior steer. I can’t remember the last time I praised a filet.

As good as the steaks are, it is a pasta dish which is destined to be a showstopper: the lobster mac ‘n cheese. Brimming with enough richness to induce an infarction, it has “signature side” written all over it:

Image(Lobster ‘n mac me, please)

For dessert you will get the baked Alaska, not because you love baked Alaska but because you’ll see it being flamed table-side all around you. I’ve never understood the appeal of too-hard, mediocre ice cream inside a charred meringue crust, but I’ve ordered it here, twice. This is because I’m a fool for fire, and an idiot for anything singed tableside.

If you don’t identify as a self-loathing pyromaniac, the carrot cake and campfire s’mores are worthy alternatives.

A meal for two here, exclusive of booze, gets to two hundred dollars faster than you can say “medium-rare.” One of our three meals was comped; one of them happened anonymously. The service was excellent each time.

BARRY’S DOWNTOWN PRIME

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5504

Image(Real men eat deli)

Saginaw’s

I hesitate to name Saginaw’s “The Best Deli in Town” because every time I bestow such benefaction, the recipient of my beneficence is out of business within a year. (Same thing happens with barbecue.)

But it is, and the proof is in the latkes. “Most of them in other restaurants look like a hockey puck,” Paul Saginaw (above) will tell you. “Ours take longer, and they have a good amount of schmaltz in them.”

That’s really all you need to know about this place. It’s full of schmaltz — Jewish olive oil — the kind of bred-to-the-bone Jewishness which is proud of its culinary heritage, not running away from it.

“When we first opened,” he continues, “our corned beef outsold turkey by this much (placing his right hand high above his left). Now, they’re about equal.”

“Nobody eats lox (cured salmon) anymore, even though it is cheaper,” Saginaw says. He then admits other smoked fishes, despite their keto-approved healthiness, are considered the domain of 80 year old Bubbees. These admissions come after I question whether the classic Jewish delicatessen is now about as fashionable as Henny Youngman.

He admits that it has. Pickled herring, smoked whitefish, lox used to fly out the door. No longer, he says wistfully. Lox now takes a back seat to cold-smoked Nova, if you can sell it at all.

This may not bode well for the future of delicatessens, but as a dedicated faynshmeker, I would urge you to take one bite of this beauty before writing them off entirely:

Image(Whatever you do, don’t Passover this Nova!)

At the drop of his fedora, Saginaw will wax poetic about rendering chicken fat and skins down, filter it into schmaltz, then frying the gribenes (cracklings) before whipping them into the chopped liver and sauteed onions. The result, when done right, like it is here, is otherworldly:

Image(Not just any chopped liver)

You’ll have to travel to New York, or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles to find any as good.

He admits no self-respecting Millennial would be caught dead professing admiration for chopped liver…even if they swoon over some fancy-schmancy paté. Such are the tides Saginaw’s is swimming against.

And then there is the corned beef — the holy grail of edible Judaism.

Brined in Michigan to Saginaw’s specs, flown to Vegas and finished on-site, it is so good it could turn a Hindu into a Hebrew:

Image(Beef – properly curated and corned)

As I’ve said on social media, don’t even talk to me about the best corned beef in town until you’ve had this bad boy.

Bread crust with real crackle, soft-yet-dense chewy rye enveloping lean, salty/spicy meat, it is a sandwich that puts its competition to shame. “Even the New York delis use cheaper bread and pre-slice it these days,” he rues. “Ours takes more time but we think you can taste the difference.”

Saginaw’s house-made, slightly-spicy Russian dressing has twelve ingredients in it and is worth a trip all by itself. So are the house-fried potato chips. They get their breads from Bon Breads locally, and he’s looking for a local bagel bakery which meets his standards. (Right now they’re coming par-baked from New York).

The desserts are from the nonpareil Zingerman’s Bakehouse. They also do real half-sour (“new”) pickles here along with fully sour (“old”) ones; the cream cheese is “the cream of the cream cheese crop” (according to Cooks Illustrated), and even the kneidlach (matzoh ball) soup is a deeper, denser, more intense broth than the shiksa stuff you’re used to.

Spend five minutes with Paul Saginaw and you’ll find his enthusiasm for good deli is infectious. He’s in the restaurant every day, and is a non-stop fount of opinions you can learn from. (Get him talking about bread and fatty brisket and he’ll make a convert of you forever.)

This deli is his labor of love and it tastes like it. Don’t even think about telling me your deli is better until you’ve tried it.

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Sandwiches are in the $15-$22 range but easily feed two. A meal for two with plenty of leftovers should be about $50, including tip. I had five meals here before I met and interviewed Mr. Saginaw. Service was always friendly and helpful and lickity-split.

SAGINAW’S

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5506

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8East

Sitting within a stone’s throw of Saginaw’s, on the same side of the second floor, is a stark contrast to a traditional deli and big hitter beef emporium. 8East checks the boxes for those wanting something Asian, unique, modern, and flexible. It is not a noodle bar, per se, nor is it all about bao, or dedicated to dumplings. What you’ll find is a mix and match menu of Asian nibbles from across the Pacific, given a personal spin by chef/owner Dan Coughlin.

Coughlin is something of an Asian-American phenomenon. His family has run traditional Thai restaurants for years, and he struck out on his own a decade ago with the fabulously successful Le Thai on East Fremont. Given a bigger space to work with (above), he’s let his imagination run wild (but not too wild) with the various techniques  of the Far East.

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The cuisine itself is hard to pigeonhole, but that’s part of the fun. Coughlin may be playing with flavors from all over the Pacific, but he has enough restraint to keep things in focus.

You can toggle between the traditional (a steamed egg custard with soy and sesame), to the trendy (pork belly bao) and never find a flaw. His Dan Dan and Sizzling Noodles would be right at home on Spring Mountain Road, while seared circles of carpaccio, adorned with baby tatsoi greens and dressed with citrus wasabi creme, are straight from the Nobu playbook.

Coughlin is unabashed in wanting to use the entire Asian flavor palette, as when he drops traditional Chinese sauteéd green beans with ground pork, right next to bites of Hawaiian musubi, and a Tokyo crepe rolled, sushi roll-style, around sauteéd mushrooms and fried tofu.

Image(My little dumplings)

He doesn’t make a big deal about his vegetarian offerings, but he should. Dishes like the simple, stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce, the fried tofu, and the mélange of mushrooms in butter are some of the tastiest plant-based recipes you’ll find, in Asia or anywhere.

Page two of the menu finds a plethora of impressive proteins  — from definitive salt & Szechuan pepper wings to cumin lamb lollipops to crispy pork belly — square chunks of sticky sweet pork that could be sold as meat candy if someone wanted to make a killing. The only entree over twenty bucks is the Five Spice New York Strip ($25), with echos of Chinese spices playing off good beef and a tangy “butterfall” sauce.

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About the only thing we can’t wholeheartedly endorse is the “$MKT-priced Lobster Fried Rice” (above). It’s plenty good, but (as we like to say), it ain’t $55 good. Stick with the Brisket Fried Rice ($16), or one of the noodle dishes if starch is what you seek.

Sharing is the mantra here, and experimenting with Asia, the theme. Coughlin’s menu has something for everyone and packs quite a punch for such a small operation (at such a small price point). The only thing it needs now is customers.

Nothing on the menu (except that steak) is over $16. Two people can eat like kings for $50, and four will be stuffed for a Benjamin, exclusive of booze. We haven’t tried any cocktails, but they’re quite proud of them. The wine list is barely adequate to the task; the sake selection a little better.

8EAST

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5508

>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<

To summarize: Barry’s is a worthy addition to Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks; Saginaw’s is best in show by a Moses mile; and 8East is a breath of fresh Asian-fusion air in a part of town that needs one.

Derek Stevens’ team should be applauded for shaking up a hotel’s culinary offerings with something other than the usual steak, Italian, coffee shop suspects. There’s also a burger restaurant (Victory Burger, below) which is fine, if not life-changing, and a coffee bar (Jack Pots) with some tasty brews and tastier breakfast cakes straight from Zingerman’s.

Bottom line: You don’t need to leave the premises to eat very well, and it’s been a long long time since anyone said that about a hotel on Fremont Street.

Image(Victory Burger!)

 

 

 

HUGO’S CELLAR Dweller

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If you really want to get deep in the philosophical weeds sometime, try thinking too much about what constitutes “good taste.” Objectivity, subjectivity, professional norms, expert opinions, philosophical treatises*— they’re all there to dazzle and confuse you.

There is no accounting for taste, the saying goes, and trying to impose your ideas of such on another is a losing proposition. Some people love Mozart; others favor the banjo. You may be anosmic, your wife may be a super-taster. Many upwardly-mobile types crave the furnishings they see in design magazines, while an Italian countess would scoff at such monochromatic dreariness.

Of course, the best tasting things generally could be said to be in good taste, but the converse might not be true. (See, I’m already confusing you.) You might find the sour, aged pungency of classic Roquefort cheese to be exquisite, and ordering it might be thought of as being in the best of “taste,” but it is easy to imagine that others might find such bracing, cultured gaminess repellent — to their palate if not their less-sensory sensibilities.

I could argue that people like big, jammy California wines because they haven’t learned to appreciate the nuances of Pinot Noir (in the same way a music teacher disdains rock and roll in favor of Miles Davis), but to many, the former taste good and the latter do not. Does this mean I have better taste than they do? I would argue yes, but they could argue just the opposite and they would not be wrong.

Good taste is accumulative. Good taste is experiential and highly personal, and at the end of the day, it is not worth the contentiousness to argue otherwise. Which is why one can view the enduring popularity of Hugo’s Cellar only through the lens of those who love it.

Image(Let’s do the Time Warp!)

To love Hugo’s you have to enjoy getting there. And to get there, you have to negotiate the casino floor of the Four Queens — a joint that’s been around since 1966 and has the decor to prove it.

Saying the Four Queens has seen better days is like saying Rudy Giuliani might have a bit of an image problem.

Many have trod here over the decades — locals and tourists alike — strolling to the short stairwell in the middle of the casino which descends to the “cellar” (top of the page).

What they seek when they enter is not “good taste” but, to their minds, something that simply tastes good. To many, this is what Hugo’s is and always has been: a trip down memory lane. This is what “gourmet” was back in the 80s and this is still how it ought to be, right down to the two sides on every plate. Hugo’s revels in its homage to the Seventies — a glorious ode to the kitschy dining of yore. And it does so without apology and with blissful ignorance of how restaurants have evolved.

Almost as fair warning, the menu is posted at the top of the stairs. Being both very long and difficult to read, it serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who thinks there will be cartwheels done in this kitchen. Along the staircase walls you’ll find the awards, most of which are for a wine list that would’ve been pretty impressive in 1992.

At the bottom of the stairs you’ll find a fake fireplace and the kind of brick paneling that was last in fashion when triple-knit leisure suits were all the rage. There is “art” on the walls too (having nothing to do with food), which provides an ersatz sense of hominess. and a low ceiling (and carpet) to enhance the coziness — the whole effect being to remind you of grandma’s rumpus room, circa 1969.

Thankfully, the carpet isn’t shag, although it really should be.

Image(An LBGTQ conundrum: who gets the rose?)

“Always a Touch of Class” is the tag line for the restaurant, and the promo materials offer “romantic and elegant dining with exquisite service in a casual setting.” We’ll leave it to less generous folks to parse the veracity of these assertions, but be forewarned: there is nothing casual going on when it comes to prices.

When it comes to the cooking, there is not a modern thought on the menu. No tweezer food here, no siree! This is protein, starch and veggie territory, gussied up just enough to justify the tariffs.

Here you will find such stalwarts as a table-side salad carte ($22); Fire-Grilled Chicken ($47); a very good Beef Wellington ($69); and a Chateaubriand for Two ($175).  By comparison, the crab cakes ($22) and escargot ($19) seem like relative bargains. By design, the menu lists all pricing in script (as in “Forty-six dollars” for vegetarian, ricotta-Stuffed Jumbo Shells), presumably to soften (or disguise) the sticker shock.

Appetizers arrive without fanfare and without finesse. Calling the crab meat “lump” is a stretch, but it’s is cooked and seasoned well, with a piquant citrus aioli to spice things up. Those nineteen dollars escargot are topped with a little puff pastry hat, no doubt plopped thereon to convey fanciness. After these, the salad carte arrives (beware any noun with a superfluous “e” attached) and things begin to nosedive.

Image(Hail sodden Caesar!)

What may have seemed charming forty years ago, now appears formulaic and metronomic, as the staff** goes through the motions with all the enthusiasm of a mortician embalming his 5,000th body.

At their first “performance” (after bored menu recitations and silverware dropped (literally) on the table), you notice the too-cold lettuce drenched with pre-made dressing (above). Then comes the accoutrements showmanship comprised of the following: “You want anchovies?” Mr. Personality inquires. “Yes, please,” and in they go with all the panache of a cop writing a traffic ticket — all of it to no great effect, other than the oohs and ahhs of other tables. You’re basically at a by-the-numbers salad bar with your own, sullen salad-tosser.

Image(Consider yourself cleansed. Photo courtesy of @VegasSkinny)

At some point a “palate cleanser” shows up in the form of a small scoop of sorbet sitting in one of those sugar cones boasting the structural integrity (and taste) of balsa wood. About the same time, a second bread basket replaces the first and is just as stale.

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Then, your sixty-nine dollar Wellington arrives (above) and the head-scratching begins. “Who is buying this stuff?” you ask yourself. Are the tables of cargo shorts enamored of sixty dollar steaks? Are the nice, 70-something gray-hairs behind you wowed by fifty buck Raspberry Chicken? Perusing the wine list, you see pages of bottles costing hundreds of dollars, and you’d bet your last Bonnes Mares Burgundy there hasn’t been a three-hundred dollar bottle of Bordeaux sold here in this century.

But the crowds come, oh yes they do. All I had to to was put some pics of Hugo’s on my social media platforms and dozens of “I love that place,” and “so romantic” comments came pouring forth.

What do they love, exactly? And in what “good taste” do they trust? This is where you have to get philosophical. What Hugo’s is selling is familiarity. And memories. And consistency in the service of 1970s banality. The very things a food snob might criticize is what keeps the customers coming back.

Image(Sea bass “Béarnaise” + ubiquitous Brussels)

Sure, the twenty-one dollar prosciutto-wrapped shrimp is way too salty. Of course the fifty-five dollar Maple Bourbon Duck is a bit overcooked and none too crispy. But who cares if the seventy-one dollar sea bass is dappled with a sorry excuse for Béarnaise? Nobody here wants to be challenged or dazzled by their food, they just want to be filled up by stuff they wouldn’t cook at home.

And at that level, Hugo’s fills the bill — this kitchen has churned out these dishes this way for so long, they meet the customers’ expectations like an episode of “Murder, She Wrote.”

If dessert you must, then the nineteen dollars Bananas Foster are flamed table-side for your amazement. The seven dollar Dessert Cart (no “e” necessary when you’re charging less than a sawbuck), looks to be straight from 1983, the first time I ever entered this time warp. They also give every female a long-stemmed red rose upon entering, which apparently also amazes the minions. (Pity the poor hostess who has to handle this transaction with the transgender crowd.)

Is any of this in “good taste” by 21st Century restaurant standards?

Absolutely not, and that’s exactly the point.

Dinner for three (three apps, three entrees, with a split dessert) came to $100/pp.)

HUGO’S CELLAR

Four Queens Casino Hotel

202 East Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.385.4011

>>>>>>><<<<<<<<

*”Subjective universal judgments,” is how Immanuel Kant put it. In Kant’s world (the world of an 18th Century German philosopher – a world without black velvet Elvis “art”), the judgment that something is beautiful or sublime is made with the thought that other people ought to agree with this judgment — a sensus communis if you will — a community of taste, agreed to by a consensus of society. All of which sounds plausible until Slim Jims and Celine Dion are brought into the mix.

**to be fair, our sommelier was charming and helpful. The rest of the staff, when they spoke, acted like they were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at gunpoint.

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Las Vegas Italians Up the Ante

Menu - La Strega - Italian Restaurant Las Vegas(Our Italians are finally putting on some mussels. Sorry.)

Ed. note: The following article appeared last week in John Mariani’s The Virtual Gourmet. Click here to read it in its original form.

Italian cuisine never goes out of style, and Las Vegas boasts its share of forgettable pasta palaces. But new entries – aiming for authenticity over the ersatz — have re-set the paradigm of quality when it comes to this much-abused food. While the tourist corridor has seen two famous, big city off-shoots plant their flags in the last year, off-Strip neighborhoods have been enriched by chef-driven (rather than red sauce-drenched) ristorante, and food all of them deliver is as stunning as a Ligurian sunset.

La Strega Archives — Being John Curtas

LA STREGA 

3555 S. Town Center Drive Ste 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702-722-2099

 Mediocre Italian restaurants are as common in Las Vegas as slot machines. So it’s big news when an off-Strip restaurant opens with ambitions of doing Amalfi Coast tasting menus, Roman-style artichokes, and pitch-perfect Neapolitan pastas. Throw some superior seafood into the mix, and you have a recipe for being packed every five nights a week and impossible to get into for Sunday brunch.

Gina Marinelli is the talent behind these menus and she’s serving them for over a year from an open kitchen in one of the sleekest rooms in town. Her knack with noodles has made her a celebrity among local pasta hounds, and her facility with fish is not far behind. She travels all over the Italian map, keeping her food seasonal and her customers intrigued, unlike few, if any, local Italians ever have.

Showing her range, Marinelli offers a first rate fritto misto (with calamari and rock shrimp) alongside rigatoni Bolognese, Lombardian scarpniocc, and Tuscan short ribs. Octopus is sparked by Calabrian peperoncino, while her tricolor salad (salami, mortadella, pesto, tomatoes) somehow manages to makes a kitchen sink of ingredients sing in harmony.

La Strega — Gaby J Photography

Everyone sources Nigerian prawns these days, but Marinelli dresses hers up without overdoing it – by floating them in a lobster broth of just enough intensity and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Dressings on the salads are equally demure — whether they be a sweet-sour accent to crunchy pazanella, or bitter frisée greens enhanced with a subtly tart vinaigrette and an unctuous poached egg. The Witch’s Garden of fresh veggies, to be dipped in whipped chickpeas, is at its peak in summer, and looks almost too good to eat.

Pastas change with the seasons, as does most of the menu, but that rigatoni is gut-busting (in all the right ways) no matter what time of year. It hews close to a classic Bolognese, while some of the lighter offerings (spaghetti pomodoro with blistered tomatoes, linguine vongole with Manila clams, preserved lemon and chives) tweak the recipes just enough to peak your interest without losing the soul of what made them famous. When available, the bucatini Genovese – a tangle of dandelion pesto, potatoes and green beans – is a lip-smacking example of how Marinelli innovates without losing the subtle rhythms of Italian cooking.

LA STREGA, Las Vegas - Menu, Prices, Restaurant Reviews ...

Big proteins are well represented – roast chicken with rapini, whole fish (usually branzino) stuffed with herbs, the obligatory sirloin – but it’s in the appetizers, pastas and salads where this kitchen really shines. Pizzas subscribe to the more is more philosophy of toppings, but there’s no denying the quality of the crust or cornicione.

Back when bars were allowed to act like bars, this was one of the liveliest in the ‘burbs. The craft cocktails are just as good these days, only now you have to take them at your table. You won’t find much to complain about on the wine list, either – it being manageable with prices well-underneath what you pay for the same bottles twelve miles to the east.

The cannolis filled with house-made ricotta are worth a trip all by themselves.

La Strega is open for dinner Tues.-Sat. and for weekend brunch. Appetizers and salads are priced from $7- $20, pizzas and pastas are in the $15-$25 range, big proteins run from $26 (chicken) to $72 (sirloin), and $8 for dessert.

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MATTEO’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222

Matteo’s aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined fashion. Without the pedigree of Cipriani, what it does it does well, at a friendly price point with lots of options. It began its run in Las Vegas as an offshoot of The Factory Kitchen, a popular Los Angeles Italian once located in an actual abandoned factory. What was groovy and hip in LA made no sense in Vegas, so, less than a year after opening, the name was changed to give more of a clue to the Italian cuisine served.  Thankfully, they didn’t change a thing about the food, which includes some of the best pasta in town.

The wine list is of manageable size and almost entirely Italian, with  well-chosen bottles, priced to drink, rather than to soak the high rollers. There are plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil, the real deal from Liguria, with herbaceousness to burn and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next week. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just as in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those earthy notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up that awesome olive oil, you’ll confront a menu with dishes you may never have heard of— ortolana; peperú; sorrentina,  and mandilli di seta sit beside those you have— carpacciofritturapappardelle, branzino.,  all of them eye-popping and mouth-dropping; all are translated into English.

Image(They had us at “brown butter sage ravioli”)

Over a dozen starters are offered, covering the Italian map from north to south. Surprises abound, such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), and 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 fanned out in slices 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 that Italian food achieves effortlessly when the ingredients are right. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

The other starter is the “sorrentina” — Chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy. Grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans are enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing.

Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they are, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha-roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good ingredients, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate.

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The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-thin noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above) will be a revelation to those who’ve spent any time in the Cinque Terre. Likewise, the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples.  Pastas are all fairly-priced between $21-$31) and meant to be shared. Executive Chef Eduardo Perez (who held the fort down for years at Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo), executes this menu to a degree of faithfulness far beyond what you find at most of the other Italians in the Venetian/Palazzo complex, most of which are skewed to the Cedar Rapids crowd.

You may probably stuff yourself on those pastas but if self-control takes hold, save room for the lamb chops, which are superb, as is the branzino, the veal, and the 16 oz. ribeye steak.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re made in-house and fantastic.

Open for lunch and dinner, with starters ranging from $10-$25; pastas from $21-$36; main courses $32-$54. The wine list is heavily Italian, organized by regions, and marked up far less than its competition.

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 CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702-770-7390

You don’t go to Cipriani because there’s some hot new chef at the stoves. You aren’t there for pirouettes on the plate or cartwheels in the kitchen. You didn’t just stumble by the place on your way to somewhere else (the pool, a nightclub, blackjack, etc.), and cutting-edge is not in your cuisine vocabulary. The reasons you walk through the door say more about you than the restaurant. You are there because you can’t find this experience anywhere else but here or in Italy.

The restaurant is there to serve you but has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows an aria from Madame Butterfly. In its original incarnation Cipriani has been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully for decades. All that is left is for you to submit to its charms and history, and discover that, through decades of refinement, it serves a menu of subtle perfection like most Americans probably have never tasted before.

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that traces its lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice, founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani—the grandfather of the family—and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. Giuseppe was fond of saying he deliberately made Harry’s Bar hard to find, because he wanted people to go there “on purpose.”

Cipriani Restaurant | Wynn Las Vegas and Encore Resort

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani-run restaurant in the world, stretching from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. Las Vegas’s Cipriani references the look of the original but spruces it up more than a bit to give the premises a flashy sense of urbanity the original has only by way of reputation. (First timers to Harry’s Bar in Venice often walk through the almost-hidden side door, look around and say “This is it?”) Where the original boasts only ten low-slung tables in its main room and a modest eight-seat bar, with faded furniture, pale yellow walls and a few windows you can barely see out of, the “copies” around the world polish things to a fare thee well. The tables are still low, but the bold tan, white, and dark blue color scheme bespeaks a nautical, unpretentious elegance that you will slip into like a pair of well-worn Ferragamos.

First timers may find those low tables take a little getting used to, but they are a definitive part of Harry’s/Cipriani brand, so get used to them you will. Arrigo Cipriani, Giuseppe’s son, in his written history of Harry’s Bar, explains their design as reminiscent of the low tables he sat at as a child, where he always had more fun than at the taller, stuffier “grown up” tavola. Sit at them for a few minutes and you will see how they promote a certain intimacy among your table-mates. For larger folk, there are a number of plush booths (also lower) where you can spread out with lots of comfy pillows.

Eighty-nine years on, the details still matter. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized and the staff is one of the most smartly outfitted in the business. Liquids are served in short, stout glasses (even the wine), and the sleek and sexy décor—all polished woods and gleaming brass—makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

Before you get to the menu, you will first have a Bellini—a small glass of Prosecco and white peach juice invented because Giuseppe looked around one day in the summer of 1948 and said, “What the hell am I going to do with all of these white peaches?” He then named it after the 15th Century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.  They cost $17 in Vegas, more in Venice, and they’re pretty small, but an essential part of the experience.

After your Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio, the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani, this one from 1950, stemming from some  “ravishing countess” whose doctor said she couldn’t eat cooked meat. Cipriani simply pounded a raw filet paper thin and dressed it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce, naming it after the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio, whose works happened to be on exhibition in Venice at the time.

With those preliminaries out of the way, you will be free to peruse the wine list as you nibble on addictive short grissini (breadsticks), or some rather forgettable bread. (Don’t despair, the bread at Harry’s Bar is pretty forgettable, too.) The list is of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range.

By now, it will be time to dive in. Certain dishes separate the men from the boys as it were, when it comes to the food of the Veneto: polenta, salt cod, cuttlefish, veal with tuna sauce, and most of all, calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”. None of these is what springs to mind when most Americans think “Italian food.”

Of things not to be missed are the baby artichokes “alla Romana” and the Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta). Americans usually resist the allure of the second dish, even though salt cod is no fishier than a tuna sandwich, but serious foodies love its airy, whipped refinement, which echoes the sea without bathing you in it.

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Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold Vitello tonnato, an umami-rich, meat-meets-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer. Salads of endive and radicchio and lobster with avocado are offered, and they’re perfectly fine (if a bit boring), so you’ll want to lean more towards the prosciutto and bresaola, which are top shelf and sliced right.  Seafood lovers are equally well-served by beautiful shrimp (above), plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia—a thick, black stew of ink enveloping tender cuttlefish strands that’s as far from fried calamari as foie gras is from a chicken salad sandwich

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two to four and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure could become habit forming. It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragù as light as the one dressing thick strands of tagliardi, and you’ll wonder if cream, ham, peas and cheese have ever matched better with tortellini, or been baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle, another signature dish. Knuckle-sized gnocchi come dressed with tomato cream one day, Gorgonzola cream the next, and are surprisingly light despite their weighty descriptions.

They do a beautiful Dover sole “alla Mugnaia” here, wonderful langoustines “al forno” and a rib-sticking braised short rib (again, all easily feed two), but if you really want to eat like a Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver alla Veneziana, a dish the  Venetians claim to have invented, but, as Waverly Root wrote in his The Food of Italy, “…it seems so natural a combination that it need hardly be pinned down to any single point of origin.”

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease Americans, no doubt),  and they are quite good, but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

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Desserts are remarkably light and white: Dolce Vanilla Meringue Cake, a Napoleon with vanilla cream, vanilla panna cotta, and the thickest, creamiest, silkiest and most vanilla-y gelato you have ever tasted.

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor elitist. It is Italian style made accessible; simple, sophisticated food served with panache. There is a seductive, reassuring quality to its flavors and atmosphere. Nothing overpowers, but each bite beckons another; every visit inspires a return. The cuisine is born of nuance, and the service has been honed by almost a century of tradition. But Cipriani is not for everyone. You have to go there on purpose.

 Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner daily. Appetizers and pastas running $14-$34, main course  $30-$64.  The $29 prix fixe lunch is a steal.

BONUS FEATURE!!

As an added bonus for those who are craving Italian these days, here is a complete list of my favorite ristorante in Las Vegas. These are the best of the best; they are also the only places I will go to when I crave a fix of Italy (in no particular order):

Monzù (go for the pizzas; stay for the Sicilian specialties)

Allegro (a gem of Neapolitan cooking in the Wynn)

Esther’s Kitchen (the bread, the wine, the pastas, that steak)

Osteria Fiorella (just opened last month at Red Rock Hotel and Casino, destined for greatness)

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar (the granddaddy of them all still has its fastball)

Casanova (in The Venetian – get the cioppino)

Spago (gorgeous, hand-made pastas)

Costa di Mare (go fish….for more than just seafood)

Carbone (take a crowd, and a second mortgage)

These also happen to be the only Italians open right now. A few others out there are either closed, in flux, or have futures which are in doubt (e.g. Eataly, Rao’s et al). Sorry if I offend your favorite pasta palace, but most of them are cheap and lousy and you know it. Others, like Sinatra in the Wynncore, and a few others on this list, are just plain boring and you know that, too.