The List – 2022

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We eat out a whole lot less than we used to.

But you’d never know it from this list.

We’re down to 5-6 restaurants a week (barely breaking a sweat compared to the old days), and sadly finding less and less to write about.

The infantilizing of food writing has not escaped our attention. The written word is an endangered species, and if it’s not in video or podcast form, few are interested in reading about restaurants anymore. Twenty years ago, I was considered an oddball for obsessively snapping pictures of my food. Fifteen years ago (when this website was conceived), I was still an outlier. Now, even high school kids take pictures of their tacos and rate them on social media.

With this in mind, for once, I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of words. Gleaning through my meals of these past five months, I discovered a number of tasty snaps (and a few videos) that should make you salivate more than prose ever could (which is, I suppose, the whole point of today’s ubiquitous food photography).

So here are the restaurants where you should be eating, from someone (me) who has actually eaten in them. Some of these recs are accompanied only with a picture (worth a thousand words?) — which, we hope, will supply you with ample reason to give them a go.

But first, a few words about Detroit pizza.

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For the uninitiated, Detroit is the home of a rectangular, reverse-form, pan-baked pie that loads its cheese on the top of the dough (and underneath the other toppings) allowing it to infuse a puffy, foccacia-like crust before a f**ckload of condiments are then applied.

Including pineapple? You betcha by golly.

 

Classic | Pizza Crimes | Know Your Meme(…and then we bake it in a casserole)

Refinement is not exactly its strong suit.

Detroit pizza is nothing new: Northside Nathan’s has been around for over twenty years. But it inexplicably became a “thing” a few years ago and now every foodie worth his fermentation extols the fine points of these belly bombs like they’re parsing the contrapuntal tinklings of Glenn Gould.

I blame the internet…and Instagram…and the legalization of weed. Because if nothing else, DP is perfect stoner food: ideal for dive bars, and temperamentally suited for a crowd that is usually as baked as the crust.

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Scott Weiner — America’s Pizza Geek extraordinaire — knows his pies, and Robby Cunningham’s Detroit rectangles stole a pizza his heart.

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If you insist, and if you’re stoned, Red Dwarf (second pic) and Guerilla Pizza (first pic and above, in the Hard Hat Lounge), are two of the best.

On to real restaurants…

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Anima by EDO

Genting Palace

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Gorgeous room. Beautiful food. Bring your wallet. And a friend’s wallet.

Marisco’s El Fresco’s

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Mariscos El Fresco’s is brand new, and only days old as I type these words. But we snuck in early and the Mexican seafood by Chef/owner John Sosa and Chef David Serrano is like nothing else being offered in town.

Image(These tacos shrimply put others to shame)

What Elia Authentic Greek Taverna did for soul-satisfying Greek cooking these guys are trying to do with much-maligned Mexican seafood — most of which (this far north) is unmitigated crap out of a freezer bag. Minimal decor, maximum flavor, in a challenging location (Tropicana and Pecos). Fingers are crossed.

Nusr-Et Steakhouse

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Burger. Of. The. Year. (so far)

Rosa Ristorante

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Just like Stacy’s mom, Rob Moore (above) has got in going on…on St. Rose Parkway (of all places) way out in the wilds of Henderson. If this culinary renaissance keeps up in this former godforsaken restaurant wasteland, yours truly is going to run out of neighborhoods to trash.

Viva! by Ray Garcia

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Best. Mexican. In. Vegas. My pictures didn’t do the spectacular food justice, so you’ll have to go and snap some for yourself.

The Pepper Club

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Todd English’s third act in Vegas has impressed even an old cynic like me. They don’t call The Pepper Club a Japanese restaurant but that’s exactly what it is….with some great Korean fried chicken to boot.

Wally’s

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Pluses: Surrounded by a fabulous wine store and first-class French cooking, cheese, charcuterie, salads (above), sandwiches (below) and steaks, and perhaps the best fries on the planet. Open for lunch. Good service.  Great people watching.

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Minuses:  Rodeo Drive-level expense amidst a sea of bargain-basement fanny packers — who take one look at the potential wallet damage and flee faster than a fat man from a fresh vegetable.  Also, the inside seating (hard stools at bare tables) doesn’t match the cooking or the (seated) crowd  — making the whole place feel like a fast casual concept got lost on its way to the Cordon Bleu.

Bottom line: Wally’s, like The Pepper Club downtown and Harlo in Downtown Summerlin, is pushing the price envelope — seeing just far it can take the familiar-yet-FOMO comfort food thing. Inflation or no inflation, Millennials and GenXrs show no signs of voting with their feet, as it is consistently filled with folks who don’t seem to mind paying $32 for a salad.

TURNING JAPANESE

Izakaya Go

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Busier than a bee on a flower farm. Harder to get into than a nun’s habit. But worth it.

Sushi Hiro

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Hiro-san and his cadre of sushi chefs (above) are the best reason to eat in Henderson. Big plus: it’s open for LUNCH!

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Trattoria Nakamura-Ya

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Japanese-Italian food may cause some con-fusion to some, but the results are always lip-smackingly delicious.

Ichiza

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Twenty years on, our first izakaya has held up well, even if it now has loads of competition for the late-night sake-and-sustenance crowd.

IT’S CHINATOWN, JAKE

…and don’t you forget it.

One of these are not technically in Chinatown, but all are very Chinese and extremely worth their chopsticks.

Xiao Long Dumpling

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The new kid on the dumpling block is one of the best.

Noodlehead

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When China Mama is packed to the rafters, walk across the street and dandan the day away.

ShangHai Taste

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This is what we meant by “….worth a thousand words.”

Big Wong

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If there’s a better bargain in Chinatown than Big Wong’s Hainanese chicken, or its curry beef, we haven’t found them…or two nicer owners than Wei and Connie:

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Rainbow Kitchen

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Dat sum dim sum and dem sum.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…

Salvadoreño

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Because no “best restaurants” list should ever be without a Salvadoran platos tipicos:

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MORE SOUTH OF THE BORDER

La Vecindad

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Our go-to when we’re in the mood for some quick queso fundido fun. After lunch there, we usually traipse around the corner to…

Pasabocas Colombian Bakery

…for a taste of Bogata and buñuelos:

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Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina

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These deep-fried chicharonnes might be our favorite noontime nosh:

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SEOUL FOOD

Napal Baji

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Unknown to most gringos, there is a mini Korean food boom going on in Chinatown. Some of it is perplexing, and subtle it is not.

Most is flat-out fabulous, even if it represents something like an assault  over the 38th Parallel against your taste buds. Rather than trying to parse all the flavors in these ingredient-heavy recipes, we prefer to let the sensations envelope us like the wisdom of their supreme leader.

If you don’t know Korean food, know your Koreans. We have good friends who know their Jjamppongs from their Gopchang Jeongols, and they always ply us with enough sochu that we don’t care how terrible we sound trying to pronounce these things.

Whatever you do, get the spicy sausage “Army” stew (above) — it’s just the thing to fortify you for your never-ending fight against the Commie menace.

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Q Bistro

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This joint has been around for a while, but is a good place to learn our kimchees and Qs. Our Korean friends swear by it. Beware though: some dishes will blow your head off. Like the Kim Sam Bok (above), that tasted as lethal as it looks.

Moobongri Soondae

Another recent addition to our Korean scene. Short on decor, long on authenticity. But it helps to have someone with you who knows how to cut the kalbi:

STEAK YOUR CLAIM

We sliced up this subject a couple of months ago, but here are the bovine beauties with whom we continue to have the best beef these days:

Bazaar Meat

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In a town of terrific tartares, José Andrés still makes one of the best. The only thing holding back this restaurant is its location….which we expect to change soon.

Golden Steer

https://twitter.com/i/status/1502493249612644355

Since the pandemic lifted, this place has been busier than a whisky concession at an Irish wedding. Reservations are now essential….even in the bar! The days of popping in for a quick drink and  grabbing a steak and Caesar on your way home are deader than Dean Martin.

Brezza

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Not exactly a steakhouse and not exactly not one, either. So we’re putting it here, even thought we’ve pretty much sworn off Italian restaurants (until we go to Sardinia in July). No matter what you call it, whenever Nicole Brisson is making risotto inside a ginormous wheel of Parm, we’re on it like a porker at an acorn farm.

Carversteak

We’ve eaten a LOT of beautiful steaks in the past six months, but the best has been the dry-aged Kansas City strip at Carversteak:

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We’re pretty nuts about Daniel Ontiveros’s mayonnaise-y take on tartare, too.

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Capital Grille

We come for the lunch (and the steak salad), but stay for dessert:

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Harlo Steakhouse and Bar

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Gina Marinelli’s pastas are better here than they are at La Strega. There, I said it.

The desserts are worth a special trip all by themselves:

SW Steakhouse

Wallet-bending but worth it. The steaks and sides are superb, but Mark LoRusso’s starters and are stars in their own right.

Image(SW recently gave me a boner. Wait, what?)

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab

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I’ve never been quite sure what to call this place. In Miami where it was founded it is Joe’s Stone Crab. Here, it is more of a steak house but seafood gets top billing. Not only that but they also do incredible fried chicken. Color me confused, but always satisfied.

Pro tip: this joint is always packed, so go at an off-hour (late lunch is best) or late at night. (You’ll have to wait until fall for your stone crabs, however.)

Sparrow + Wolf

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S+W isn’t a steakhouse per se, but we think this is the best thing on the menu:

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If Carversteak fed us our best steak of the year (so far), this 32 oz. beauty with American banchan isn’t far behind. All of those small dishes of sharply-focused spice, veggies and texture are perfectly calibrated to mitigate the richness of the beef.

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I may occasionally give Howard grief for criticizing the high-wire act he has going on with some of his food, but there’s no denying the pioneering status of his restaurant, and the revitalization of Chinatown it sparked five years ago.

Vic & Anthony’s

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The Golden Nugget does not leap to mind when someone says “first-class beef emporium,” but its steakhouse goes t-bone-to-t-bone with the competition on Fremont Street. The old-school, dark, clubby atmosphere is a big plus, as is the professional service, and a wine list full of bargains if you’re willing to break your Cali cab addiction (see above).

It might also have the best crab cake in Vegas (see below):

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NEVER BEEN TO SPAIN?

Jamon Jamon Tapas

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Traditional Spanish in the burbs. Fun decor. Easy parking. Ignore the surroundings, and dig into tapas to beat the band and the best paella that isn’t made at Jaleo (below).

Jaleo

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There is no better paella in America. The open pit alone cost over $1mil and you can’t duplicate its woodsy subtlety and smokiness without moving outdoors. Also open for lunch (which we tend to forget), and has a killer bar and beverage program (which our aging liver doesn’t need). Around for more than twelve years and still one of our gastronomic gems.

TRIED AND TRUE

Cipriani

https://twitter.com/i/status/1497673359080845319

DE Thai Kitchen

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Don’t ask me what this is or how to pronounce it. Just take this picture to the restaurant, point to the not-so “secret menu” on the wall, and dive in. Beware, however, of ordering it or anything here “Bangkok hot.”

Saginaw’s

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The world famous 99 cent Vegas shrimp cocktail lives! But now it costs $11. Still a bargain; still worth every penny.

Life’s a Bagel

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The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

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Your best off-Strip seafood option that doesn’t have a Japanese flag attached to it.

PublicUs

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Our weekend go-to for incredible coffee and fresh-baked pastries. These scones should be illegal:

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Braeswood BBQ

The two best barbecue options in town are within a couple of blocks of each other on Main Street in #DTLV. Both are no-nonsense odes to smoked meat. Don’t even think of arguing with me about Vegas ‘cue until you’ve given each one a test drive.

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Soulbelly BBQ

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Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

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As welcoming as the Greek Isles, blessedly without the unwanted nudity and non-stop bouzouki music.

Bouchon

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I’ll put this $36 chicken up against your $72 steak any day.

Marché Bacchus

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We don’t know for how much longer André Rochat is going to be cooking, but right now, this septuagenarian’s desserts are worth a special trip.

It’s hard for us to carb our enthusiasm for this place. An essential stop on any Italian eating tour of Las Vegas.

Khoury’s

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I have dreams about this mezze platter: visions of endless baskets of nutty-puffy pita bread, stuffed into my eager maw after a slathering of spicy sujuk sauce and a dollop of labne as cool and bracing as a summer salad  — all of it refreshing my spirit as it satisfies my primal appetites. In my dreams, I caress and suckle each bite as if it were my last, kneeling before these treasures, intoxicated by the perfume of garden greens given lusciousness by oils, seeds, fruits and plants squeezed gently, then rapidly from the earth by pulsating soft-yet-turgid fingers, until, after stroke after stoke, then lick upon lick from my avaricious mouth, the cornucopia of sweet, herbaceous and milky tastes ooze forth in an explosion of happy, dribbled satisfaction.

Thanks, I needed that.

Anyone got a cigarette?

Smiling Charlie Sheen GIF - Smiling Charlie Sheen Smoke - Discover & Share GIFs

D’Agostino’s

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Just order this linguine with clams and thank me later.

Cafe Breizh

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JUST DESSERTS
How inexcusable of us to end without featuring a few sweets that have sated our cravings for something sugared and syrupy after a surfeit of savory sustenance. Good, house-made desserts (like good bread) are now as common in Las Vegas restaurants (on and off the Strip) as hamachi crudo. Here are a few concupiscent confections of which we are quite fondant (sorry, couldn’t resist one last pun).
Just as we can’t resist this picture of Cipriani’s luscious, multi-layered, insanely rich chocolate cake — here being attacked by a Proper Lunch Bunch attendee who we try to keep away from sharp objects and anything that has to be shared:
Image(Matt Brooks can resist anything but temptation)
Honey toast at Sparrow + Wolf (modeled by Sherri Mirejovsky, who graciously took her modeling fee in sweets):
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Vanilla Panna Cotta with Vanilla Sorbet at Wally’s:
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And finally, all the Catalan creams at Jamon Jamon Tapas:
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That’s all for now folks. These should keep you busy for a while. They aren’t every restaurant I’ve been to since Jan. 1, 2022, but they are the ones that left the deepest impression….and where I think your hard-earned dollars will be best spent.
In the meantime, should you want to follow me on a podcast, tune into the What’s Right with Sam & Ash show every Friday to hear my masticatory musings about the Las Vegas food scene.
Or follow me on Twitter (@eatinglasvegas), where I try to post real-time photos (with commentary), about all of my eatings about town.
Bon appétit!
THE END
Image(It only took thirty years, but I’m finally the official something of something.)

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.”

Image(You gelato be kidding!)

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.

Now THAT’S Italian!

An Italian renaissance has been underway in Vegas for well over a year.

What began with Esther’s Kitchen (the restaurant that doesn’t sound Italian, but is), has blossomed into a into a full blown tidal wave of authenticity — where competitors joust for prominence to allow the cream of this peninsula to rise from a sea of mediocrity. (For the uninitiated, “Being John Curtas” means being able to mix metaphors faster than shooting monkeys in a barrel.)

Seriously, though, take stock of all the fabulous Italians who have opened their doors since the beginning of 2018:

Esther’s Kitchen

Pizzeria Monzú

Eataly

Vetri

Masso Osteria closing at end of May. I have bananas that lasted longer than this place.
La Strega

Cipriani

Manzo (inside Eataly)

The Factory Kitchen

All of them pitched not to some lowest common American-Italian denominator, but seeking to replicate the clean, precise, ingredient-driven flavors of the homeland.

What is so fascinating for an old, Italo-phile like me is how true each of them is to their roots. Manzo echoes Tuscany with prime meat being grilled over an open flame; Cipriani carefully mimics the flavors of Venice, and La Strega is serving sardines fer chrissakes…way out in a neighborhood! Monzú may be the most crowd pleasing of the bunch, but its menu is a far cry from your basic chicken parm/pizza/pasta joint.

Vetri may be first among equals with its gorgeous setting and evocative, northern Italian pastas, but right behind it, at both a lower altitude and price point, is The Factory Kitchen — the restaurant with the best food and worst feng shui in town.

Before we get to all the great food, let’s get the feng shui issue out of the way.

To begin with, there is the name. Let’s be blunt: it is not a good name. It tells you nothing about the place, and sounds like the exact opposite of a finely-tuned restaurant.

The words “The Factory Kitchen” are so aggressively anti-appetizing, one thinks at first that they must be some sort of ironic joke. They may have made sense in Los Angeles — as the original address — but what resonates among SoCal gastronauts holds no currency in Vegas. Here, meals need to be telegraphed to customers from a hundred yards away.

Let’s be frank: Vegas tourists are not the sorts to parse out vagaries of nomenclature when choosing a place to eat. If it doesn’t spell things out, they get scared and confused.

If the name isn’t bad enough, there is the decor. From the outside, you see a long, industrial-like wall separating diners from passers-by. If you approach from the Palazzo end of the hallway, you can’t even tell if it’s a restaurant. (From the opposite end, the open entrance, hostess stand and bar signal that food and drink are nigh.)

These are not minor quibbles. If the place doesn’t look like a restaurant and the name doesn’t sound like a restaurant, what message are you sending to people walking by? I get that they’re going for an informal/comfortable vibe, which breaks the chains of fine dining (or whatever nonsense restaurant consultants are selling these days), but I didn’t know “late 20th Century cafeteria” had become a design aesthetic.

The room you first see (part of the bar area) has only a few tables, but they’re the best in the house. Turn left, and you’ll see the main dining room (below) stretching all the way to an open kitchen on the opposite wall. This room has comfortable chairs, well-appointed (and spaced) tables, decent acoustics, and all the charm of a mess hall.

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Fortunately, once the food appears, all these feng shui problems go poof!

Your first sign of how serious TFK is about its food will come from the wine list — it being of manageable size and almost entirely Italian content. In an easy-to-read format, you will find well-chosen bottles priced to drink, not dazzle the rubes and soak the high rollers. Most are listed by grape varietals, with plenty of interesting bottles in the $50-$100 range. You won’t find any bargains, but neither will you need a proctologist after ordering from it.

The next thing you’ll notice is the olive oil. This is not the run-of-the-mill half-rancid  stuff put out by Italian restaurants everywhere. This is the real deal from Liguria — with herbaceousness to burn, and a soothing, back-of-the-throat peppery finish that lasts until next Tuesday. The soft white bread that comes with it is rather bland (just like in Italy), the better to serve as a carrier for all of those creamy-herbal notes coming from the oil.

While you’re lapping up all that awesome olive oil, you’ll then confront the menu — and a more pleasant confrontation you cannot imagine. Things you’ve never heard of (ortolana, peperú, sorentina, mandilli di seta) sit beside those you have (carpaccio, frittura, pappardelle, branzino) — all of them eye-popping in appearance and fork-dropping in taste.

Don’t despair if your Italian isn’t up to snuff. Everything is listed with complete descriptions in English. My guess is the affectation of giving each dish its native name is to inform diners up-front that they’re not Chicken Caesar Land anymore. (For that there are six other Italian options (whew!) in the Venetian/Palazzo.)

Over a dozen starters are offered, and they cover the Italian map from prosciutto to Sorrento. Pleasant surprises abound — such as the sweet and spicy, soft-cheese-stuffed peppers (peperú), or 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 and the “sorentina,” The prosciutto (at the top of the page) finds a flower of thin slices of sweet/salty ham 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 Italian food pulls off effortlessly when the ingredients are right. Here, they are more than right. This is a dish not to be missed. It may be the most expensive antipasti ($25), but it also feeds four as an appetizer.

“Sorentina” (above) is chef Angelo Auriana’s homage to the seafood salads of the southern Italy — its grilled calamari, chickpeas and fava beans being enlivened with just the right spark of chili in the lightly-applied dressing. Good luck finding another salad (seafood or otherwise) where each individual element pops as much as these do.

Light and simple might be the way owner describes Matteo Fernandini describes this food, but I think he’s being coy. Most of the dishes sound more complicated than they appear, but there’s nothing particularly simple about plancha roasted octopus with garbanzo puree, roasted carrots and cotechino sausage. The trick is in using good groceries, and knowing how to balance flavors on the plate. Once you get to the pastas, you’ll realize how well Auriana and his on-site lieutenant Eduardo Pérez have mastered this craft.

(Ravioli di pesce)

Pérez, is a man who knows his way around a noodle.  He held down the fort at Lupo in Mandalay Bay for years, and here, he hand-rolls (yes, he personally hand-rolls pasta with his staff and you can see him do it), a variety of fresh pasta every day — from black olive-speckled pappardelle to ravioli di pesce, to short rib agnolotti — and the results are so vivid they will make you question your previous pasta preferences.

The signature “mandilli di seta” (handkerchief-flat noodles bathed in almond-basil pesto, above), will be a revelation to those who don’t while away their time on the Cinque Terre, and the seafood-filled ravioli are like pillow-y surprises straight from Naples. The point is: get as many of the pastas as you can stuff into your piehole. They are fairly-priced (between $21-$31), meant to be shared, and as fresh as Genovese basil.

(Lamb chops with root veggie purée)
I wish I could tell you more about the secondi (main courses), but truth be told, we’ve run out of gas on all three visits after waltzing through the top two-thirds of the menu.  The only one we’ve had were the lamb chops, and they were superb. No doubt they treat their branzino right; and the 16 oz. boneless rib eye looked interesting (as did the grilled veal). But if you want the scallops or New Zealand fish, there’s nothing I can do for you.

TFK aims to take you on a culinary tour of Italy, in a streamlined, easily digestible fashion. It has neither the pedigree of Cipriani nor the ambition of Vetri, but what it does it does well, at a friendly price point, with recipes that will open your eyes to the possibilities of real Italian food.

Ignore the name and the decor and dive in.  And get the cannolis for dessert. They’re fantastic.

 

(Everything on the menu is meant to be shared, with salads and apps running $10-$25; most pastas in the mid-20s; and big proteins $30-$50.
Dinner for two sharing three courses will run around $100 – much more if you go nuts like we do. One of our three visits here was comped.)

THE FACTORY KITCHEN

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1222