John Curtas is …

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The List

It’s been quite the Winter/Spring. Trips to Italy, France, Germany, and Georgia. Countless trips to Chinatown, and too many trips taken (kicking and screaming) to inexplicably popular Italian-American restaurants.

Since I live and work downtown, I pretty much cover that beat without breaking a sweat, and getting to the Strip is no big deal either, although more and more I find myself less and less interested in dining there.

Maybe that’s because the Strip has finally settled into what it was always destined to be: a conglomeration of tourist restaurants, each formulaic in its own way, each playing a massive numbers game. That doesn’t mean there isn’t inspiration to be found there, but for every Le Cirque, Bazaar Meat or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, there are dozens of places just going through the corporate motions.

And let’s face it: we at ELV can only tell you so many times what a wonderful place Prime or Libertine Social is without sounding like a broken record.

And dollars to doughnuts, the next time (if ever) we re-visit the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Yellowtail, Rao’s or Mizumi, we will have the exact same experience we had five years ago. That doesn’t mean these places aren’t any good, it just means that they’re not that interesting (anymore) to anyone who has eaten in them multiple times.

So, in our constant attempt to keep ourselves interested, and this site fresh in its 10th year of operation (Yes, we celebrated our 9th anniversary on April 1. Hooray us!), we periodically publish The List: a current snapshot of everyplace we’ve eaten in the past several months, along with the occasional pithy, erudite, incisive and astute commentary for which we are known.

As usual, all places mentioned are listed randomly and come highly recommended…unless otherwise noted:

THE LIST

Urban Turban Remarkable, chef-driven, upscale Indian (dots not feathers). Not your usual mix and match soups and stews.

Evel PieVincent Rotolo shoots and scores! By bringing a slice of the New York streets to Fremont.

Andre’s Bistro & Bar – The Dover sole is worth traveling across town for. Fabulous short wine list. Equally fabulous desserts.

Prosecco – Only one quickie meal so far, but encouraging enough that we will return.

Cleo – Still our best Mediterranean.

The Kitchen at Atomic – First bites were tasty and well-composed, if under-seasoned. The rib cap was a standout.

Le Pho – The soup that saved Las Vegas.

Carson Kitchen – Almost three years old and better than ever.

La Comida – Tequila heaven, solid if uninspiring Mexican.

Rosallie Le French Café – Now with wine to compliment Vegas’s best quiches and pastries.

Cornish Pasty Company – Gut-busting fare for the Welsh coal miner in you. Nice beer list, friendly people.

Vesta Coffee Roasters – Compelling coffee, amazingly good (if limited) food, always a superb soup-of-the-day.

The Goodwich – The Patty deserves to be in the hamburger hall of fame.

Bazaar Meat – I’ve run out of praise for this place.

Carnevino – Ditto.

El Sombrero – Politics schmolitics, Irma Aguirre makes great Mexican food.

Estiatorio Milos – The fish is still the freshest in town, and the lunch is still a steal.

Le Cirque – Every gastronome in Vegas (all twelve of us) now makes a seasonal pilgrimage to taste Wil Bergerhausen’s current menu.

Italian-American Club – Fuggidibadit.

Piero’sREALLY Fuggidibadit.

Starboard Tack – Holy Habana, Batman, the rum cocktails here are no Joker! The food has yet to be tried. The location is in the middle of nowhere.

Morel’s Steakhouse & Bistro – Solid from top to bottom. Three meals a day.

CUT – Someone CUT the cheese, please!

Bardot Brasserie – My only issue with BB is that once you’ve eaten here a few times, you’ve basically covered the whole menu.

Marche Bacchus Tom Moloney is now at the helm. Here’s hoping they let him do his thing.

Americana – Will it beat the jinx of this jinxed location? First bites showed some flair, but flair (and a gorgeous setting) may not be enough.

Niu-Gu Noodle House – Best xiao long bao in town, by a Shanghai mile. The stir-fries are other-worldly too.

YuXiang Korean Chinese Cuisine Korean-Chinese is a sub-species of Korean cookery. It’s hearty, it’s a little more refined than traditional Korean fare, and it’s delicious.

Chada Thai – Sometimes I forget how fabulous the food is at Chada Thai, but one bite reminds me of how elevated Thai cooking can be. (See pic at top of the page.)

Chada Street – Slightly rougher around the edges than its sister restaurant a couple of miles down Spring Mountain Road; no less excellent; incredible wine/champagne list. There’s almost no reason to drink wine anywhere else in town.

Chengdu Taste – Real Szechuan that will light you up. Not for the faint of heart or timid of palate. Easy-to-navigate menu and congenial staff make it easy on round-eyes.

Yuzu Japanese Kitchen Best. Japanese. Period. Call ahead for a kaiseki dinner that is straight from a side street in Shibuya, or wander in and just say “omakase, arigato!”

Capital Grille – My favorite chain. Wonderful room with a view; excellent steaks, classic salads.

JinJu Chocolates – Bon bons galore! Great cookies too.

GelatologyDesyrée Alberganti’s concoctions are the stuff ice cream dreams are made of.

Yui Edomae Sushi – A slice of Japan in our own backyard. Fish so good it tastes like it just leapt out of Tokyo Bay. Call ahead and tell ’em Curtas-san sent you.

Japanese Curry Zen – How can rice on gravy be so tasty?

Meraki – Fast casual Greek. Made by guys who know their way around a souvlaki.

Origin India – Top to bottom, our most consistent, classic Indian. Nice bar and wine list, too.

Shang Artisan Noodle – Shaved or hand-pulled, these noodles are life-changing.

Momofuku Umami bombs away! Strictly for Millennials who don’t know any better.

Milk Bar – Over-sugared, pre-packaged pedestrian fare raised to heights of slavering devotion by the Instagram generation. Nothing about it or Momofuku is as good as its reputation.

Udon Monzo – Eat anything here (or at Shang Artisan Noodle) and you’ll realize how overrated Momofuku (and David Chang) is.

Zuma – We are sooo over big box Japanese, but the food here is pretty nifty.

Turmeric Flavors of India – Four meals, each one worse than the last. Proceed at your own risk.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar – Why anyone would eat at Piero’s when Ferraro’s is just down the street is anyone’s guess.

RM SeafoodI’ve had my last meal here. I’ll start caring about this place when its absentee celebrity chef does.

There you have it: four months, forty-four places (give or take) — and for one of those months we were out of town. Don’t let anyone ever tell you they eat out more in Las Vegas than we do. We’re doing it so you won’t have to, and so that you, dear consumer, can spend your eating-out dollars wisely.

You’re welcome.

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I Like Italians, Really I Do

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I like Italians, really I do.

Without Italians we would have no pizza; no opera, no Joe DiMaggio.

Leonardo Da Vinci? Big fan.

Fiorella La Guardia? How would you get to New York without him?

There’s a downside of course. Italy has heaped cultural abomination after cultural abomination upon America for centuries. Italy has also given us Jersey Shore, Topo Gigio and tiramisu. And for every Dean Martin, there’s a Sacco and Vanzetti. You show me a Giorgio Armani and I’ll raise you a Donatella Versace.

And let’s face it: much of the worst of our popular culture begins and ends in Little Italy. Frankie Avalon: Italian; Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino: really Italian; overuse of the word fuck: so fucking Italian it fucking hurts.

Without any of these, you must admit, the world would be a better place. No Italy, no Sonny Bono. I rest my case

But these are minor quibbles. In the great scheme of things, Italy and Italians have been at the heart of advancing western culture for two thousand years. From Cicero to Galileo to Enrico Fermi, our arts and sciences have been enriched by Italians. Where would art be without Michelangelo, or music without Jerry Vale?

Italians may have a slightly inflated view of themselves, but on the whole, their pride, at least in Europe, is justified.

The trouble with Italy isn’t Italians; it’s with Italian-Americans.

More specifically, what they’ve done to the food of this great nation, when they decided to move over here en masse around 120 years ago. Because for every beautifully composed carpaccio you find in America today, there are football fields of baked ziti; for every bottle of Chianti Classio, an ocean of Gallo Hearty Burgundy is drunk. What Italian-Americans have done to pasta is criminal, and what they do to salad and chicken (like putting chicken on salad) should be grounds for an en masse deportation.

Italian-Americans take a certain perverse pride in perverting their cuisine (and then shouting from the rooftops how “fucking awesome” it is). The crimes against nature they commit in thousands of Italian restaurants in America daily are too numerous to count, but for every Rao’s, Carbone or Buddy V’s out there trying to elevate American-Italian classics, there are, at any given moment, 10,000 cooks pouring a quart of canned sauce onto a half pound of overcooked pasta and smothering it with Sysco cheese, all to the ohs and ahs of its goomba-loving audience.

In spite of twenty years of refinement, publicity and a quest for authenticity by chefs, food magazines, and home cooks alike  — bad Italian food still rules the roost in this country. And its popularity shows no sign of abating.

Exhibit One: The Italian American Club.

Possessing all the charm of a church basement, the furnishings of a convention hall, and the comfort of an Elk’s Lodge, this ode to ersatz Eye-talian packs a crowd in nightly that seems quite content with the fare. So who am I to argue?

I’m not and I won’t. Much.

I will however point out a few things to a few of you that might make you think twice before showing up.

Those chairs you sit in will be straight from that church basement. The crowd is so old it makes Piero’s look like the Encore Beach Club. The music (from a non-stop, not-untalented crooner) comes straight from the Perry Como school of somnambulant listening, and the art on the walls (should it catch your eye) will remind you of pictures that once did the same thing on a street corner.

Of course, calling anyplace called The Italian-American Club “old school” is like calling Mussolini a bit of a hot-headed, fascist dictator. It’s like calling Sophia Loren a gal with a nice figure, or a Lamborghini a two-door sedan.

Exhibit Two: There’s a classic tenet of Italian restaurants that goes: The more pictures of Frank Sinatra there are on the walls, the worse the food. Be advised: there are lots of pictures of Frank Sinatra on these walls.

The circumstantial evidence says it all, and the food says it louder than anything.

 Old school salads taste of white lettuce and bottled dressing. The butters come in three shades of tasteless margarine; the veal Marsala tastes of veal but not Marsala; and the aglio e oglio pasta (pictured above) tastes only of burnt garlic. In old school Italian-American restaurants, you’re not supposed to notice these things. In old school Italian-American restaurants, everyone is too busy filling up on cheap starches and proteins to give a shit, and the owner is too busy counting his cash to care.

On the plus side, I’d eat here again in a heartbeat over Piero’s, so there’s that.

My mother still makes me a dish (occasionally) from my childhood that I love. It consists of ketchup combined with brown sugar, poured over pork chops upon which a lemon slice or two has been placed. She then bakes the whole thing to death in a 400 degree oven for an hour until the chops are like shoe leather and the lemons have shriveled into tart chewy circles of sourness. The whole thing is quite the culinary massacre but I love it. It reminds me of sitting at our kitchen table in Winter Park, Florida and feeling the cool linoleum beneath our feet while the whole family hunches over dinner in 1965 on a hot Sunday night. I know this recipe is terrible but I love it to this day. The trouble with Italian-American restaurants is that they  based an entire cuisine on such atrocities, and then seduced an entire country of white-bread/unseasoned meatloaf/pot roast loving Protestants to buy into it. What little taste and imagination this food might’ve once had (Tomatoes! Garlic! Olive oil! Herbs!) has been so co-opted by bad restaurateurs, and so diluted over the past hundred years that the iconic dishes are now little more than pentimenti of what was once noble and delicious.

Of course nothing is preventing the cooks from doing these classics right. Done right they’re some of the most toothsome recipes on the planet. But doing them right is not what bad Italian restaurants are about. Doing them cheaply and shoveling the slop to a bunch of customers conditioned to accept these short cuts (because anything beats tuna-noodle casserole and a jello mold), is what created this lousy genre.

White lettuce and burnt garlic never killed anyone, of course, and if no one complains, nothing is ever going to change. In America, for the last half of the 20th Century and the first 16 years of this one, nobody’s complaining. Except Italians from Italy, of course, and anyone who cares about what they eat.

ELV’s dinner for two with an $11 glass of wine came to $76, and he left a $20 tip.

ITALIAN AMERICAN CLUB

2333 E. Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.4357.3866

http://www.iacvegas.com/

P.S. For those of you who want to read more on this subject (and discover that I’m not just pulling some of these fucking theories out of my fucking ass) I recommend you to read John Mariani’s How Italian Food Conquered the World, and John Dickie’s Delizia! – The History of Italians and Their Food. Certain Italian-Americans won’t bother, I’m sure, preferring instead to think of me simply as a fucking asshole.

PIERO’S Doesn’t Give a Fuck What I Think About It

The plan was to get drunk first.

Because I knew I was going to need some fortification.

I won’t lie; I knew what I was in for, and a good stiff martini (or two) would be just the thing to soften the red sauce slings and overcooked Italian arrows of this dining dinosaur. They might even create the sort warmth and bonhomie that might make the evening enjoyable.

So, I ordered a martini (actually, a Gibson) and it came in a vessel the size of a small boat. Thus, with one fell swoop did the cocktail (that was actually three drinks in one), start to erase the memory of the indignity I suffered upon entering this warhorse only a few moments earlier.

That indignity, the sort that must be suffered by countless diners in this town, was a new one on me. It wasn’t the usual “would you like to wait in the bar” scam, nor was it the “we’re fully committed” bullshit that confronts hapless conventioneers (staring into half empty dining rooms as they’re turned away) nightly in our humble burg. (Hint: They’re almost never fully booked, they’re just too lazy to figure out a way to seat you just then.) No, this was a unique situation. Let’s re-trace the steps, shall we?

It started at the hostess booth. It was 5:30 on a Tuesday night.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked. “We’ll see what we can do; would you like to wait in the bar?”

“No problem,” we thought to ourselves. “I’m planning on getting drunk tonight so that’s just the ticket,” is what was dancing in my head.

Unfortunately bar #2 was wall to wall with patrons (at 5:32 pm) and there wasn’t a seat to be had. (Bar #1 was reserved for a private function — an event that appeared to be four guys swigging beers in a corner. An hour and a half later, it was down to three guys swigging in the same corner, among a dozen empty barstools and three vacant booths.)

So I ambled back to the hostess stand, content with the fact that I’d have to begin my drinking at the dinner table.

“There’s no room at the bar,” I stated cheerfully to the host. “Could I get seated now?”

This appeared to cause some concern. Or at least some conspiratorial whispering. Said whispering ensued as I glanced upon a sea of empty tables behind them.

In a minute or so, the conspiracy was settled and the young women asked me to follow her. The downcast look she shot me when she popped the question should’ve given me a clue.

We walked past that ocean of emptiness and she directed me to one of two, vacant, elongated u-shaped booths in a corner. Preferring to sit looking out onto the dining room, rather than facing a wall, I started to slide along the wall to settle into my seat.

The problem was, I couldn’t slide. As soon as my torso hit the space between the table and the back of the booth, there was no room. The rounded table was pushing so deeply into my 41″ waist that it was all I could do to slide a few feet into the table, all while being cut in half by the furniture. At first I tried to see if the table was adjustable; it wasn’t. When I tried the other side of the booth, it was just as bad.

At most, there was maybe 12″ of clearance between the table and the back of the booth. I fully admit to have three more inches on my waist than I should have, but even a 150 pound stringbean would have difficulty sitting there.

About then, I looked up at the hapless waiter and said, “This is unacceptable,” and noticed him smiling meekly at me — a smile that quietly announced, “This is where we seat all the suckers, if we can get away with it.”

So, I trudged to the hostess stand for the third time.

“I’m sorry,” I said in a voice that was preternaturally soft and calm, deferential and exceedingly polite, especially for me, “but that booth you showed me is very uncomfortable. Do you have anything else?” (By this time, as you can guess, I really wanted that martini.)

With that, she proceeded to lead me past the almost-empty bar #1 into a room that looked like a second class convention hall in Cedar Rapids:

Thus began my last meal at PIERO’S.

The first thing that confronts you at Piero’s is their list of celebrity guests:

…which confirms one of two invariable rules of Italian dining. First, the more pictures of Frank Sinatra there are on the walls, the worse the food, and second, the more celebrities that show up, the faster you should run away.

Not that we have anything against Paula Abdul or Rob Zombie, but neither is known for their culinary discernment. (Nor is anyone else on that list.) And let’s face it, Mike Tyson is to gastronomy what Thomas Keller is to wife-beating.

With all this in mind, we were off to the worst start since Trump’s presidency. But we soldiered on.

By the time we were halfway into it, the Gibson started to do its trick, and by the time the wine list was presented, we were almost in a good mood.

(A note on the wine list: It is the most ridiculous carte des vins in all of Las Vegas, with markups that would make Steve Wynn blush. On the plus side, it dispenses with all of that $81 v. $79 nonsense — everything is rounded up to the nearest $5 increment — but locating a bottle under a hundy is harder than finding a hymen in a whorehouse.)

So we settled in, caught a mild buzz, and ordered a twenty buck primitivo that was served 20 degrees too warm.

Then, the real adventure began:

$64 worth of dry, stringy stone crab:

An aptly-named “Garbage Caesar” salad (white lettuce, bottled dressing, mealy tomatoes):

$29 worth of pasta puttanesca swimming in sauce:

…tasting of overly sweetened tomatoes upon which two olives and a dozen capers were sprinkled. It was by turns both anemic and a diabetic’s nightmare — no mean feat that — and about as authentic as pineapple on a pizza.

Then there was the veal saltimbocca:

…a version devoid of character (not to mention cheese, sauce or sage), so as to make a mockery of the “jump in the mouth” translation of the name. Throwing pancetta on top of veal does not a saltimbocca make, but such things matter not to a kitchen that’s been getting away with culinary murder for decades.

Our waitress (very good, BTW) sold us on the creamed corn, so we bit:

…and what was delivered contained corn (canned) upon which cream had been poured, and some bread crumbs toasted, and that was it. Creamed corn it was not. On the plus side they didn’t charge us for it.

When the stupefaction subsided, we were handed a bill for $220. $220 for four dry crab claws, one worthless salad, a lousy pasta, a terrible veal dish, two rock hard cannolis, and two very alcoholic drinks.

There is a certain type of local who will tell you to this day that Piero’s is a great restaurant. “One of our favorites,” the refrain goes, or “the best Italian in town.” In fact, just two nights after our dinner here we ran into some old friends who stated their love for the joint and how they go there at least once a week. Upon closer inquiry, they confessed that the ginormous cocktails were a big draw, and the fact that they had a house account. And, to be fair, the service (notwithstanding that booth debacle) is excellent.

We’ve had similar conversations over the years and they always leave us dumbfounded. People who should know better — the well-heeled and the well-traveled — treat this place like a private club, even though most nights it’s packed with slack-jawed tourists who accept their fleecing like a bunch of lanyard’d lambs at slaughter time.

But week in and week out you’ll find them here —  blue-haired doyennes, white-haired car dealers, past-their-prime attorneys, real estate agents, politicians, and pit bosses — a certain breed of Old Vegas that long for the days when men were men and red sauce ruled.

The point is, Piero’s was never any good, even in its prime. It’s not a place to go for good cooking now, and it wasn’t in 1984 when I first ate there. (Back then it was all about the bent-nose guys who hung out there – who didn’t know anything about good food either.) It’s like the place in Big Night that packs in the fun loving, the celebrities and the nouveau riche, even though the food is atrocious. This doesn’t keep them from charging three times what it’s worth, however.

Drown anything in crappy tomato sauce and cheap cheese and the world will beat a path to your door. I wrote those words 22 years ago and they’re still true today. The people eating here don’t care about authentic Italian or even authentic American-Italian. All they care about is feeling comfortable with blunt instrument cooking that hit its expiration date 30 years ago, but to them never goes out of style. But Piero’s doesn’t care about that, and most assuredly it doesn’t give a fuck what a food snob like me thinks about it.

And two fucks it will continue not to give, not while it continues to make a mint off of credulous conventioneers and the fading big shots of Las Vegas.

PIERO’S

355 Convention Center Drive

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.369.2305

http://pieroscuisine.com/

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