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

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.

Image result for The Factory Kitchen Las Vegas

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

 

CIPRIANI

I liked the location at once because it was at the end of a dead-end street….This meant that the customers would have to come there on purpose and couldn’t just stop in as they were passing by. That is the way I wanted it. To this day people have to come to Harry’s Bar on purpose. – Giuseppe Cipriani (1900-1980)

You go to Cipriani on purpose. You don’t go 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. (Venetian cuisine being perhaps the least-traveled of all regional Italian foods.)

The restaurant is there to serve you, but it has nothing to prove. It knows itself like a high soprano knows the aria from Madame Butterfly. It’s been doing the same thing, in the same way, successfully since 1931. There is no need for it to change. 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 you’ve probably never tasted before.

If you resist this submission you will be disappointed. If your idea of Italian food is Tuscan meatiness, Neapolitan flamboyance, Calabrian heat or Emilia-Romagna-Sicilian-Roman largesse, you may look at your plate and wonder what all the shouting is about. But if you’re open to experiencing the deceptively simple yet hyper-delicious food of the Veneto —  — you will be transported to a cuisine both rustic and refined.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Ernest Hemingway and Giuseppe Cipriani prepare for their hangovers, Venice, 1950)

Before we get to that food, a little history is in order. Cipriani Las Vegas (pronounced chip-ree-AH-NEE LAS VAY-gus) is the latest in a chain of Italian restaurants that trace their lineage to Harry’s Bar in Venice (Italy, not California). Harry’s Bar was founded in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani — the grandfather of the founding family — and became famous as a watering hole/restaurant for European nobility, the carriage trade, celebs and American literati in the 1940s and 50s. (Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway were constant habitués, even though they hated each other, and once almost came to blows in the place. Orson Welles and Truman Capote were also regulars, and also hated each other, but the only punches they landed had rum in them.)

Being something of a louche, café society lover myself, I consider it my home away from home whenever I’m in Venice. (Unlike Hemingway, however, I find myself constitutionally incapable of parking six bottles of Amarone in my liver (as he did) every night before bedtime.)

Nevertheless, hanging out at Harry’s Bar has been de rigueur when I’m in town, perhaps in hopes of absorbing a bit of Ernest’s mojo. (In case you’re ever there, the first seat at the bar, by the cash register, is the one with my name on it.) So far, it hasn’t worked — I am also constitutionally incapable of writing short, declarative sentences —  but it’s made me more than a little acquainted with the bottom of a Bellini glass, and what constitutes a definitive seppie in tecia (cuttlefish served in its own ink).

When Arrigo Cipriani (Giuseppe’s son) answered the siren song of expanding and branding Harry’s Bar to other locales in 1989, he chose New York City  – specifically a space on the ground floor of the Sherry Netherland hotel. Then and now, the family considers the name “Harry’s Bar” to be sacrosanct, and chose their last name as the brand for their empire. (Arrigo originally wanted the first Harry’s Bar clone to be called “The Copy” but thankfully someone talked him out of it — no doubt because “Let’s meet at Cipriani” has a much more musical ring to it than “Let’s go grab some ‘Copy’ for lunch.”)

When I was frequenting New York in the early 90s, I found myself perched there many a time, too, although in 1992 I remember the prices to be cripplingly expensive. Now they don’t bother me at all — 30 years of “Eating Las Vegas” having immunized me from any and all restaurant sticker shock.

Las Vegas is now the 19th Cipriani in the world. They stretch from London to Singapore (New York currently has three), and the business is still family-owned. This alone probably explains why the quality remains high, and why the food in Las Vegas may be as close to the original as one could ever hope for.

Image result for Ernest Hemingway at Harry's Bar(Harry’s Bar)
(Cipriani Las Vegas)

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, 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 (they and the chairs are about 3″ lower than standard height) 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-seven years on, the details still matter, whether you’re in Las Vegas or one of the other Ciprianis around the world. Those tables will always be covered in starched white linens, the flatware is modestly-sized (Arrigo hates big, clunky knives and forks), 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 decor — all polished woods and gleaming brass — makes everyone feel like they’re in a Cary Grant movie.

And then there is the food. It’s the real deal, not an Americanized version of the idiosyncratic cuisine of Venice, but as pitch perfect as you could hope for thousands of miles from its homeland.

Before you get to it, 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?” Purée them and add the sparkling wine was the answer. He then named it after a 15th Century Venetian painter — Giovanni Bellini — and the world, literally, started beating a path to his bar.

The good news is that those Bellinis are cheaper here! They cost $17.00 in Vegas, and 30 euros in Venice, so have two! (They’re pretty small.)

(A proper carpaccio)

After the Bellini, you’ll have the carpaccio: the other world famous invention of Giuseppe Cipriani. Only slightly younger than the Bellini, its invention (in 1950) stemmed from some “ravishing countess” telling Giuseppe that she couldn’t eat cooked meat. “No problemo, segnora,” was his reply, “I’ll just pound a raw filet paper thin and dress it with a white, mustard/mayonnaise sauce.” He could have called it anything he liked, but the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio happened to be hanging about Venice at the time (his paintings, at least). Giuseppe loved his bold red and white colors, so “carpaccio” it was, and every raw, flattened piece of food ever since has been stuck with the name.

As with the Bellini, a proper carpaccio couldn’t be any simpler, but as with all unadorned, exquisite things, there is no room for error. The raw ingredients must be impeccable, and their treatment must be precise, the better to let the result transcend the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, as with the martini, bourbon, pizza, sushi, etc., the letter and spirit of the original is honored more in the breach these days.

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.)

You’ll find the wine list of modest length and actually rather approachable, with plenty of decent choices of Italian white wines from multiple regions in the $65-$100 range. Maybe it’s the water of the Venetian Lagoon, or it’s famous fish, but I’ve always found white wines go best with this cuisine…even the meat dishes.

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 are what spring to mind when most Americans think “Italian food”.

Venetians love their fine white cornmeal (from the Friuli region) and serve it with everything but pasta and gelato. Good polenta — and at Cipriani it is always good — is much more than mere mush. It stands alone, like great pasta, for its elemental purity and strong sweet flavors of the earth. Polenta is as Venetian as a gondolier and learning to love it is your first step in obtaining your Venetian food diploma.

(Baby artichokes alla Romana)

Of things not to be missed (after that carpaccio) should be an order of baby artichokes “alla Romana” and Bacalà Mantecato (whipped salt cod, served with fried polenta).

The first will be the best artichokes you have ever eaten — soft, small and delicate — so unlike the woody, giant, indigestible globe artichokes we are stuck with in America.

Americans resist mightily 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.

Tuna of a more refined sort makes an appearance in a mayonnaise-like emulsion covering thin slices of cold veal — another exquisite recipe of extreme foreignness to American palates. Vitello tonnato appears on menus from Turin to Trieste, and is an umami-rich, meat-sea antipasti, much beloved by Italians in the summer.

(Seppie in tecia)

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 the plump shards of sweet-sour anchovies, and the seppie in tecia — a real test of your Venetian food chops — it being 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.

It would be nice if they could offer some of the bounty of the Adriatic Sea/Venetian Lagoon here (moeche, canoce, barboni, etc.), but a 6,000 distance makes seafood a secondary protein on this menu, rather than its focus. You’ll forget all about the fish, however, as soon as you dive into the pastas.

(Baked tagliatelle with ham)

Pastas are where things get heftier. But the portions easily feed two, and are so good they should come with a warning label that repeated exposure to any of them could become habit forming.

It’s doubtful you’ve ever had a veal ragú 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 baked more beautifully as a crust for thin, egg-y tagliatelle — the latter being another must-try 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” (a.k.a. a la meuniere) 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 the Doge of Venice, tuck into the calf’s liver “alla Veneziana”:

(Fegato alla Veneziana – liver and onions, Venetian-style)

The Venetians claim to have invented the dish, 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. It is true, however, that nobody does it better.” And nobody does it better in Las Vegas than Cipriani. Even if you think you hate liver, you should give it a try.

Pizza makes an appearance (just to appease knuckle-dragging Americans) —  but going to Cipriani for a pizza is like going to La Scala to see the “Book of Mormon.”

Something called “YOTTO Japanese Cuisine” is also on the menu, presumably because when people go to an Italian restaurant, what they really want is some Japanese food.

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-i-est gelato you have ever tasted. No foolin’….it is truly extraordinary gelato, worth a special trip all by itself.

(Best. Gelato. Ever.)

Cipriani is neither crowd-pleasing nor horde-imploring. Some people won’t “get it” in the same way people don’t “get” classical music, haiku poetry, new wave cinema, or the lines of a simple black dress. Cipriani is a state of mind. The ease and grace with which it displays its good taste is something new here — refinement and subtlety being to Las Vegas what strippers are to the Piazza San Marco. But there is a seductive reassuring quality to its flavors and its 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. Cipriani is not for everyone. It is for the cognoscenti. You have to go there on purpose.

(Cipriani is open for lunch and dinner, seven days a week, with the same menu for both. Most dishes are easily split between two people with apps and pastas running $15-$30, and mains in the $30-$50 range, meaning: a modest lunch or dinner for two can run well under a hundy, or a more extravagant one about $150, excluding booze. My first meal here was comped, my next three have run $72, $200, and $163. They also validate your parking. Anyone who orders “nigiri sushi” here should be (figuratively) shot.)

CIPRIANI LAS VEGAS

Wynn Hotel and Casino

702.770.7390

http://www.cipriani.com/restaurant/?loc=las-vegas

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

Ground Zero for downtown’s dining renaissance. So crowded, as Yogi Berra said, no one goes there anymore. So popular, a seat at the bar (any night of the week) is harder to find than a Mario Batali fan.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a meal here….only that when you do, you’d better plan ahead, before the downtown denizens descend.

What began with Carson Kitchen four years ago took a giant leap forward in 2018 with the opening of this intimate space just off Main Street in the Arts District. But where CK is all gastropub-y with it’s burgers, salads, wings and such, here chef/owner James Trees goes full Italian, bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, pastas and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. He even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and porchetta (never as good as I want it to be). Nothing wrong with a giant loaf of rolled pork, mind you, I’ve just never been impressed by the dish, in or out of Italy.

Another thing CK and EK have in common is ear-splitting, military jet afterburner noise levels. Be forewarned: this is not a place for intimate (or even business) discussions. If anything, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of modern urban dining — an atmosphere where people come for the food and “to party” (as Trees puts it), not for contemplation or conversation. My solution is to come either for a late lunch or an early dinner, or, weather permitting, sit outside. Another minor criticism is the way you order and pay at the counter at lunch, grab a number, and wait for your food to be delivered. None of this affect the exquisite food coming out of the open kitchen, but it does give the place a fast-casual feel that detracts from the foodie vibe. On the plus side, once you’re done eating, there’s no waiting for a check, you just get up and go.

Picky picky picky, you’re probably saying to yourself right now (especially if you’re under 40), but like I said, none of this affects the food, almost all of which is drop-your-fork gorgeous.

Begin with the bread, because it’s baked in-house and out of this world. Then proceed to the meat and cheese platter — one of the prettiest in Vegas. From there, dive into the verduras (veggies): cauliflower with anchovy, chili, garlic, and capers, mushrooms with house-ground polenta, an above-average Caesar, and a chopped salad so enticing everyone at your table will grab a forkful. At lunch you’ll love most of the sandwiches, with the grilled truffle cheese with mushroom, on house bread crusted with fontina cheese, attaining second level status in the pantheon of grilled fromage. The garlic poached tuna “Niçoise Things” is too healthy for us (and occasionally under dressed), but the “Spicy Greens” with candied pecans, pickled (and we mean pickled) plums, brie and prosciutto, hits just the right balance between produce, spicy and sweet.

As good as the left side of the menu is, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant wars and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are handmade, portioned for two and presented to elicit oohs and aahs for their perfection of pasta porn.

Where you’ll really gasp, though, is when you see his radiatorre with black garlic, lemon and cream, a palate-coating belly bomb of the best kind:

Nothing is run of the mill about these noodlelicious dishes — they use top shelf groceries, rotate the recipes seasonally, and unlike so many other restaurants, aren’t afraid to get in your face with flavor. When Trees says “amatriciana” he means it. The spice will be there as surely as the pepper in the cacio e pepe will light you up.

Pizzas are far from standard issue, either, with beautiful, charred cornicione (above), good cheese, and always a surprise or two in the topping department — like salty bacon with caramelized onion, or Greek sausage and fennel.

All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st Century.  It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, amazing amaros, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: feed its customers (and quench their thirsts) in a way that will have them returning again and again.

(Lunch for two should run around $40, with dinner about double that, exclusive of drinks, which shouldn’t be excluded, ever. There’s a reserve wine list in addition to the $40/btl  one, and it’s a lot pricier, if no less exciting.)

ESTHER’S KITCHEN

1130 S. Casino Center Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.570.7864

https://www.estherslv.com/