A Tale of Two Italians

That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore. Yogi Berra

Good restaurants are multiplying around here faster than a Catholic rabbit.

So what did I do last week?

Endured two meals that were long on calories and short on satisfaction — a cardinal sin for an experienced, conscientious carnivore catered to constantly by crave-able concupiscent comestibles.

I can make excuses for one of them (and will do so below), but the other disappointed in so may predictable ways I should’ve had my head examined for going there.

Let’s save the worst for first, shall we?

I’ve been a huge Nora’s Cuisine fan since it opened in 1992. Back then, its pizzas and pastas (like pasta con le sarde) were revolutionary for their time.

Back in the day, the whole joint was about as wide as a pizza box, had maybe six tables, and made most of its money on take-out pies. It was a tiny local treasure, known to the pasta cognoscenti as an island of authenticity amidst a sea of red sauce.

In 2004, Nora’s (named after matriarch Nora Mauro) decided to go big time. It blew out walls on both sides of the skinny pizzeria, installed a cocktail bar, upgraded its kitchen, hired a bevy of waiters, and proceeded to rake in mountains of cash. (Fun fact: Nora’s bar was the first local, off-Strip restaurant to sport a serious mixology program. When every bar in town was still pouring cosmopolitans, Nora’s was doing magical things with obscure Italian vermouths, oddball bitters and craft spirits. The drinks here are still money, with the Lemon Drop and Sicilian Mule being justifiably famous.)

The pizzas were still good after the expansion, but the food became more pitched to the endless breadsticks crowd. The something-for-everyone menu eschewed small-bore quality for dazzle factor, and subtlety on your plate became harder to find than an ectomorph at a fat farm. Some time around a decade ago, I wrote it off, not because it was terrible, but because it was too much — too much starch, too much garlic, and too much tomato.

(Four pounds of fruitti di mare, or so it seemed)

So why did I go back? Especially when the excellent Pizzeria Monzú (owned by the same family) is only a block away?

Good question….and one The Food Gal® asked me continually on the ride home after we dropped $150 on two apps, two dinners, and two glasses of wine.

As I patiently mansplained to her, I went mainly to see what all the shouting is about. The shouting in this case coming from Nora’s new digs (2016) in a free-standing building only a few hundred feet from their old location. (The old location now houses the aforementioned Monzú.)

That shouting, you see, is because, the new new Nora’s is always full. Day and night, it is overflowing — with people, cars, and presumably, red sauce. Regardless of the time, there’s never a parking space to be found.  It’s so full the side streets are lined with its customers’ cars (and it has a capacious parking lot). Nora’s is so busy your average Indian restaurant could exist for a month on the patrons it turns away every day.

How do I know this? Because my in-laws live close by, and we drive by it. All. The. Time.

So I was curious, and took my wife along to take the plunge with me. What we found inside were three not-unattractive large rooms facing an open kitchen, with a long, comfortable bar taking up space in one of them (much as it did in the old place). As with the old Nora’s, there’s a winning wine list, excellent service, well-crafted cocktails, and serious digestivos — everything giving off a serious foodie vibe…except the food.

(Fuggidabadit)

As for that food, well, let’s just say it hasn’t gotten any better since they started serving it in a McMansion.

But I’m not blaming the owners, the managers, or the chef(s). The food has gotten worse because Nora’s has become a victim of its own success. Nora’s is too big. This new restaurant is double the size of the old one, which was triple the size of the original one. And no matter how big they get, they’re always full. And being always full, they’ve now become too successful.

Some businesses are too big to fail; Nora’s is too big to be any good.

With those physical expansions has come a menu that looks like it’s locked in a bad recipe arms race with Piero’s for who can offer the most over-the-top Eye-talian dishes to its undiscriminating diners.

“Over 70+ classic Italian dishes,” the menu boasts, and, true to its word, it offers everything from fried calamari to chicken parm to  “Crazy Alfredo” for the hungry hordes. Wings? Pork bellies? Salmon? Spinach and Farro salad? We got ’em. Just add veal for $8 more!

To put things in perspective: if you’re serving 30 different pasta dishes, dozens of pizzas (with 25 different toppings!), 20 proteins, and everything from arrabiata to mozzarella sticks, quality control is going to take a back seat to plate slinging and turning those tables.

(They had me at lemon clams)

I think the chefs here deserve combat pay more than criticism, so we’ll leave you with these final words about the new new Nora’s (which really isn’t that new anymore): the garlic bread is good, the lemon clams were great, and two pounds of pasta underneath the fruitti di mare isn’t fooling anyone.

Serviceable osso buco bedecks a small mountain of mashed potatoes (that starch thing again), but the Josper-grilled veggies (pictured) were a waste of time and ten bucks.

But one can hardly fault the kitchen for not finely-tuning some grilled endive, when 300 growling stomachs are out there demanding their creamed fettuccine with chicken, sausage and shrimp.

So, as with Piero’s, we will leave Nora’s to those who love it, and resolve to eat Italian elsewhere the next time the curiosity bug bites.

At the other end of the spectrum, in terms of vibe, clients and ambition, is La Strega. Located due west and some miles from Nora’s, it aims to be new school Italian, bringing chef-driven food to those who know their polpette from their soppressata.

That chef is Gina Marinelli, and she’s a Strip veteran who knows her way around a pesto. Open barely two weeks, Marinelli is still working out the kinks, but even after a quick glance (or, in our case, a quick meal) you’ll find a lot to like about the place.

To begin with, there’s the build-out. The owners (the Fine family of local real estate fame) have taken the old Due Forni space and blown it out in all the best ways. The kitchen is now open, the bar is in the middle of the room (sounds weird, but it works), and the feel is one of a casual, food-focused room.

The space compliments the food, and the wine list compliments everything. (As we’ve mentioned here and on social media, the wine selections in off-Strip restaurants have improved 1000% over the past few years, and wine director Stephanie Torres’ list is the latest example.)

(Looked great, which is all it brought to the party)

Service was razor-sharp on a full-night not 10 days after the opening, and it was remarkable how poised everyone seemed under such pressure-packed circumstances. There are bones I could pick with some of the menu (the meatballs need to be bigger and cooked better; the frutti di mare (above) was all hat and no cattle; and the sardines need to be 86’d), but the signifiers are all there that this could be a major player on our restaurant scene — even though half the things we sampled missed their mark.

So, we’ll chalk up La Strega’s menu missteps to its infancy and give it another chance. As for Nora’s, I’ll meet you there anytime for a cocktail, as long as we can stroll over to Monzú to eat.

NORA’S ITALIAN CUISINE

5780 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.873.8990

http://www.norascuisine.com/www/

LA STREGA

3555 Town Center Drive Suite 105

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.722.2099

 

 

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/