PIZZERIA MONZU

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Las Vegas upped its pizza game considerably over the past decade, but it wasn’t until Pizzeria Monzú opened this year that it had a true, Sicilian superstar. It’s something of an insult that food this good is located right behind an Arby’s, but there it is  — in a strip mall that’s seen better days — beckoning like no other Italian in town. Sicilian restaurant scion Giò Mauro (of Nora’s family fame), took over the space of the old Nora’s (the new one is now a block away), and expanded and modernized it. What was once an old school, Italian-American, now reeks of wood smoke, craft cocktails and foodie cred.

The room is big, bright and airy; the tables are comfortable and well-spaced. High ceilings keep the noise level down to conversational levels, and a small stage off to one side gives you a hint that live entertainment will be in the offing.* Those wanting upscale spritzers, and gorgeous (all-Italian) wines by the glass will not be disappointed. Those wanting to imbibe some serious beer, and wines by the bottle, will sit up and take notice.  Twelve brews on draft are offered, ranging from local IPAs to Michigan brown ales, and the wine list is a dream come true — dozens of modestly-priced vintages from up and down the Italian peninsula, all with brief, pithy descriptions of what you’re getting. It might be the best short wine list in all of Vegas.

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Once you’re seated, get the appetizers, all of them: squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta and mint, ascolane (sausage-stuffed) olives (above), stuffed chicken wings, agrodolce (sweet and sour) meatballs, and the brightest of all in this galaxy of six stars, the “stuffed lemon leaves” (below), which aren’t as much stuffed as they are skewered and grilled in leafy envelopes. Each order is enough for four, and a table full of these plates makes a meal unto itself.

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If you insist, the salumi and fromaggi antipasti are also a good place to start, as Mauro is justifiably proud of his meats and cheeses, and the bruschette (whether plain or speckled with roasted garlic and anchovies, Sicilian-style), will satisfy as well. The only problem with all of these is if you fill up too fast and you won’t have room for the main event: pizza alla pala. As big as a small desk and easily feeding 4-6 hungry adults, these big boys come in all sorts of combos.

We’re partial to the the “Simple” (crushed tomatoes, basil and mozzarella), but the “Regina Margherita” (above) gets a deeper sweetness from cherry tomatoes, and a certain tang (from buffalo mozz) that is as far from your average slice as the Godfather II is from Sharknado. No matter which one you get (and some of the combos like “Pork Reigns” and “Vegas Meets Italy” are a tad overloaded for our tastes), you can’t help but notice the chewy, tangy, dense and satisfying bread providing the foundation. This is serious stuff — long fermented dough, from an ancient starter, that shines on its own. ‘Tis almost a pity to cover up this toothsome crumb with bacon, goat cheese and arugula (Apricot) or Gorgonzola, walnuts and honey (‘Nduja), but if you do, you’ll still find yourself fighting your table-mates for the last slice.

I am told that the large proteins offered here — a “Polpettone” (giant meatball), grilled swordfish, and a 34 oz. rib eye “Fiorentina” — are wonderful, but I’m always too busy grooving on the pizza to notice. The one I’ve had — crespelle al forno  (baked lasagna with meat sauce) — was a meaty, cheesy, béchamel-topped delight.

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Anyone who doesn’t order Sfgini di San Giuseppe – fist-sized Sicilian doughnuts (above) filled with sweetened ricotta — should be consigned to sleep with the fishes.

(Dinner for four, with a few drinks, all those appetizers, a big pizza and dessert will run around $191.95….exactly what I paid for it.)

PIZZERIA MONZÚ

6020 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.749.5959

http://monzulv.com/index.html

* No one hates music more in restaurants than I do. Music in restaurants ruins both the music and the food. But when Gio Mauro takes the stage to belt out some opera (he’s classically trained) or an old standard, it all seems to fit, and I don’t mind it a bit.

Solipsism, The Strip, and GOOD PIE

First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind words and comments. It’s hard to express how much they mean to me. While we may not get the number of page views we had 7-8 years ago, it’s gratifying to know that what we write still resonates with a certain level of intrepid foodie and discriminating gastronaut….like you.

Second of all, as promised, we’re going to end this incarnation of EATING LAS VEGAS with some short, to-the-point recommendations based upon where we’ve been chowing down since the first of the year, and where you’ll be finding us in the coming months.

As you will notice, most of these are off the Strip. Try as we might, it has been almost impossible to work up any enthusiasm for dining on Las Vegas Boulevard for months now. The greed, the stupidity, the same-old sameness, and the insanity of its pricing has finally gotten to us. After twenty five years of being their biggest cheerleader, we can no longer summon the energy to drag our ass down to one of the huge hotels, pay for parking, and endure the slack-jawed hordes who are being subjected to metronomic service at stratospheric prices.

Need more reasons for our disaffection? Then how about:

> Bavette’s is charging $74 dollars for a steak you can barely see.

> Big Casino now tacks “resort fees” onto bills for things (like the gym and landline phones) that most people don’t use.

> Drink and wine prices continue to be obscene. Getting a drink at a Vegas casino is like fighting with the peasants for a sliver of soylent green.…and paying $22 for the privilege.

> Paying for parking is a non-starter for us (as with most locals) — another reason to continue to patronize the Venetian/Palazzo, at least until they capitulate to their accountants and start nickel and dime-ing everything like everyone else.

> The Las Vegas “food press” (note the air quotes) trips over their dick praising Hell’s Kitchen, and whatever licensing deal Giada struck this week to slap her name on some pathetic piece of plagiarism. My compliant, credulous colleagues continue to write about these places like they are actually a Gordon Ramsay, Morimoto, or Giada Di Laurentiis operation, when in actuality they are branding exercises for hotel-run restaurants. Most of these aren’t even management deals — like the one Wolfgang Puck struck with Bellagio for the upcoming Spago re-launch. Instead, they stand as a cynical testament to the continuous soaking of yokels that has become Vegas’s stock in trade.

> Mario Batali is now persona-non-grata in his own restaurants (which his {former} company actually does run) — restaurants that are only famous because his name is attached to them. Yes, we know he’s a pig and has behaved deplorably around many women on many occasions, but what are we to make of his Las Vegas presence? Can his restaurants stand on their own? Even with the talented Nicole Brisson at the helm? Three years ago I would’ve cared, now I can barely manage a shrug.

> The Strip may be dying the slow death of a million paper cuts, but the re-branding/down-sizing of the Batali-Bastianich empire — a bastion of serious foodie cred in our humble burg for almost a decade — is an immediate casualty from which there may be no recovery. Because there are no more celebrity chefs on the horizon, and because the ones here (with a few exceptions, mostly French) are either played out or washed up.

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One final story before I rest my case, stop my navel-gazing, and make a recommendation.

I went to lunch not long ago with some very well-known, affluent types who live in those Happy Trails/Heartbreak Ridges-type neighborhoods in the fancy part of town. These folks have known me for a long time and are fully aware of my writing, my persona, my palate, and my prejudices.

They spend their days tooling around in expensive automobiles, playing golf and planning their vacations. They travel the world. They profess to love good food and wine. As far as I know they can all read and write. It was for that reason that I had given them copies of my book in the past. They asked me where I wanted to go (up around Summerlin), but I got overruled.

Where we ended up was one of those inexplicably popular restaurants that pretends to be about wine, but really isn’t, and acts like it’s putting out great food, but doesn’t.

As I sat there pushing my food around on my plate and trying to find a drinkable wine for under a hundy, it struck me: “You’re never going to reach these people, John.” 23 years of preaching and proselytizing hasn’t made a dent….not with this crowd. They can buy and sell me a dozen times over, and talk about flying here and renting a yacht there, but they wouldn’t know a good cacio e pepe if it bit them on their Asti spumante. And they don’t care to know. Like most folks when it comes to food (and wine) they are blissful in their ignorance. (Did I mention that Santa Margherita pinot grigio was the preferred libation? And that the place was thick with lawyers? And that two of them proudly told me that Michael’s at the South Coast was “the best restaurant in town”?)

As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve been no different all these years than a music or movie critic who is always suggesting that people learn to appreciate a higher, more advanced form of the entertainment they enjoy. Month after month and year after year these critics recommend more complex, better music, better movies, and more elevated examples of these art forms. And what do they get for their troubles? People asking them how they like a stupid Star Wars re-boot, or taking them to a Miley Cyrus concert.

When the hoi polloi does this, it doesn’t bother me. When wealthy friends and acquaintances do, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But for you, dear reader, I have nothing but respect.

You have braved the wilds of the inter webs to find me, and have suffered through enough of my kvetching.

You, my friend, are here to learn about the good stuff — the best food and drink this town has to offer. So I say: fuck the knuckle draggers; screw the affluent….AND GET THEE TO GOOD PIE!

Why Good Pie? Because it’s the best New York-style pizza in town. It’s a slice joint no wider than a pepperoni, but the deck oven stuff being put out by Vincent Rotolo puts other pretenders to shame.

Good Pie gives me hope. It stands for the proposition that passionate individuals are still out there trying to bring good taste, and better pizza, to Las Vegas.

Good Pie is everything Tivoli Village and Downtown Summerlin (which is neither down, nor a town, nor downtown of anything) are not.

Good Pie is as real as the dough Rotolo is proofing (every two days) and rolling out to order.  Good Pie is excellent ingredients, house-made sauce (from a combination of California and Italian tomatoes), and the best pizza cheese you’re ever going to find in a take-out joint.

Those pizzas are something to behold, but his garlic knots:

…are going to be what makes him famous.

Yours truly is not a calzone lover (too bready and cheesy — even for this carb-lovin’ turophile), but if you insist on one of these belly-bombs, this is the place to get one:

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And if vegan pizza is your thing, look no further than this bad boy:

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….or what these bad boyz are up to:

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My rich friends won’t come here, because, on a fundamental food and wine level, they’re content to remain in a culture-free cocoon of their own making.

But you, my friend, should, because, like me, you’re always searching for something better, whether in a pizza or a cacio e pepe.

If I wasn’t fat and old and being hounded by my wife and cardiologist, I’d be here every day.

GOOD PIE

725 Las Vegas Boulevard South #140

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.844.2700

https://www.facebook.com/goodpielv/

 

Carlos Buscaglia Is Leaving DUE FORNI

The pizza ovens will remain. The pastas will continue to be made. The uber-cool drinks, funky wine list and Neapolitan pies aren’t going anywhere.

But Due Forni is losing the man who (along with Alex Taylor) invented the concept and has kept it going for the past six years.

Yes, Carlos Buscaglia is moving on, going back to the Strip, and leaving his pizzeria progeny behind.

And suddenly, Las Vegas feels a little less artisanal, more by-the-numbers, and not quite as culinarily compelling.

Six years ago it was a match made in heaven. Six years ago, the Strip was in the doldrums, and chefs like Buscaglia, Howard Choi, and Daniel Ontiveros were looking to make their mark in the ‘burbs. One by one they sought to pioneer and present a better way of eating to the citizens of Las Vegas. One by one they tried to elevate our food scene, and one by one they (along with David Clawson, Bradley Ogden and others) have crashed upon the rocks of our insatiable addiction to prefabricated, freeze-dried and franchised food.

There have been some success stories, to be sure: Dan Krohmer’s Other Mama being the most notable of the bunch. But by and large we are a blue collar town who prefers the sanitized and safe to the original and thought-provoking.

“There’s too many chain restaurants and too many people who want to eat in them,” is how Carlos put it to me last night. “It can be very discouraging.”

Indeed it can. Every day at my office I’m confronted by staff and co-workers who prefer Jimmy John’s and Claim Jumper to something owned by a local. All they really know is that these places are safe and predictable, and that’s all they really want. Instinctively they know, what Buscaglia and I know: that it takes a certain leap of faith to put yourself in the hands of a local chef. Better by far to trust the judgment of thousands before you, and give yourself over to a formula that’s worked millions of times, be it in making a mediocre sandwich or a fried chicken chalupa.

That’s what Due Forni and Buscaglia have been up against from the get-go, and that’s what they’ve succeeded against, against all odds.

But, as he explained to me, it’s time to move on.

“Frankly, I’m tired of cooking everything in two ovens and in a 400 square foot kitchen with no stove. I’m looking forward to managing a big kitchen again.”

That shouldn’t be a problem where’s he’s going since HEXX (where he’ll be running the kitchen), is a multi-tiered, high-volume operation that will keep Carlos on his toes.

What they are gaining Due Forni will be losing: a chef with great taste, and serious cooking chops. Buscaglia has been on the Vegas food scene since the early 90s when he was slinging noodles at Pasta Mia. From there he worked his way up the kitchen ladder all the way to becoming top toque at Fiamma, before departing to pursue his dream of bringing great ingredients and great pizza to the neighborhoods.

He succeeded and Due Forni succeeded, but time marches on and new challenges must be faced. From the sound of things, new ownership is taking over DF and, for the time being, the template will remain in place. (It still does a bang-up business most nights of the week, despite being surrounded by shopping malls with loads of shitty dining options that the public can’t get enough of. I’m talking to you, Downtown Summerlin.)  It remains to be seen if they do Carlos’s legacy proud, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that the dough will be just as crispy-chewy, and the toppings just as top-shelf as ever.

Even if they do, however, not having Carlos Buscaglia cooking off the Strip just made eating off the Strip a little less tasty.