For as long as Las Vegas has been a major tourism attraction, the city has been closely linked with Italian cuisine, and having one or more Italian restaurants has pretty much ben a pre-requisite for any resort here.
But as tourism quickly rebounds for Las Vegas – one of the places hit hardest by COVID – it’s worth noting that recently the Italian food scene here has been changing dramatically – and for the better.
Most food experts date the city’s transformation into a gourmet wonderland to the 1992 arrival of the first celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, and his Spago spinoff in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace (today it’s relocated to Bellagio). Ever since then, the world’s most famous chefs have come in droves, and the cuisine has matured in phases, with a fine dining French wave, an upscale steakhouse explosion that hasn’t slowed, and a specialized Pacific Rim influx, from sushi to dim sum to street food.
In a way, the current transformation of Sin City’s Italian scene mirrors what happened with Asian food. Once upon a time every casino had a generic Chinese restaurant – often with a heavy Americanized Chinese influence – and a broad Japanese counterpart. But in recent years these offerings became more refined, regional and specialized, with more specific niches such as dim sum, a wide slate of Korean, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, and lots of takes on street food and night market offerings alongside Michelin-starred chefs.
In this vein, ever since Sinatra played casinos that no longer exist, Las Vegas has reveled in its Italian American “red sauce” spots, and while that genre can certainly be delicious, and is always comforting, there is a certain sameness to it that makes many menus feel identical. Even in recent years as existing resorts expanded or morphed, many of the newcomers were basically an upscale take on this same old model, including Rao’s (now closed), Carmine’s and Carbone.
But the newest of the new places represent a big departure from the status quo, and an embrace of what makes Italy everyone’s favorite dining destination – an incredibly rich tapestry of very regionally varied foods and distinctive dishes that come from one and often only one part of the country. This in turn is driven by the place-specific ingredients used in those dishes, be it the superlative pesto of Liguria, unbeatable pistachios of Sicily or the prolific wild boars of Tuscany and its Maremma. Of course, Vegas was not without some more creative standout Italian spots, such as the excellent Scarpetta in Cosmopolitan, but suddenly it is fast and furious.
No spot serves this concept up as neatly as the stunning new Brezza at Resorts World, the first entirely new mega-casino resort on the Strip in over a decade. Brezza is helmed by accomplished chef Nicole Brisson, who previously opened the Las Vegas outpost of Eataly and its many regionalized and stylized Italian outlets, and before that, ran Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s Las Vegas operations, from very high-end Italian steakhouse CarneVino to B&B Ristorante. Before that, she worked for culinary star Paul Bartolotta at Wynn. But most importantly, Brisson spent her formative years staging (interning for chefs) at acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurants across Italy, including stints with legendary chefs Fabio Picchi and Dario Cecchini. She came back with not only a deep appreciation of regional specialties but of the ingrained Italian culinary tradition that fresh and seasonal are always better, and another commandment of top-level Italian cuisine, letting the ingredients shine and be the star.
I just ate at Brezza and was blown away by just about everything: the space, the service (especially hard to do at this moment in time), the quality of the ingredients, many of them meticulously sourced from regions all across Italy, but most of all the menu itself, loaded with hyper regional dishes. For example, gnocco fritto is one of my personal favorites, but also a longstanding mystery – how has this decadently delicious and unique dish of Emilia Romagna not become a huge hit in our globalized culinary culture? It is basically a light airy fritter of fried dough wrapped with thin prosciutto while still warm so the fat melts, the ultimate take on the bacon doughnut concept. It’s simple and sublime, but until two weeks ago, I had seen this dish at one and only one restaurant in this country. Now, thanks to Brezza, my list has doubled.
Most of the menu is fancier, from lots of seafood crudo to a sumptuous list of made from scratch daily pastas, including less common shapes such as chitarra, brought to life by choice flavorful ingredients like carefully sourced Italian chiles, nduja and capers. If you want an example of how ingredients can shine, try the seemingly simple heirloom caprese, which has the best buffalo mozzarella I have ever tasted, and I have had a lot, across Italy and at top restaurants and cheese purveyors here – just stunning.
There’s also a showpiece Tuscan-style wood fired grill, on which Brisson and her staff cook lots of heirloom meats and poultry, along with market fresh fish including another Italian classic, whole branzino. But the big difference here, besides extremely well sourced proteins, is the ultra-ageing program Brisson carried over from CarneVino. Brezza is now one of just a handful of restaurants in the world specializing in the next big thing in red meat, ultra-dry-aged beef. Hers is at least 90-days, more often over 100, aged in her own facility, while most high-end steakhouses and butchers consider it a really big deal to go 28-days. The result is both more tender and more flavorful, and it was just amazing. The upshot of this is that you can go to Brezza and have an absolutely stunning regionally focused Italian dinner, or go to Brezza and have one of the best steakhouse dinners in meat-crazed Vegas, which is saying something. Or you can do both at once, as she offers up yet another ultra-classic regional Italian dish that has not been served widely enough here, Bistecca alla Fiorentina (beefsteak of Florence). This Tuscan staple showcases ingredient-driven simplicity and is utterly dependent on three things, the quality of the thick T-bone used, the extra virgin olive oil that adorns it and the live wood fire. She gets the size right – 42-ounces or three and a half pounds – while her dry-aged take is better than you will find in Italy. The EVOO is impeccable, and she’s got the flames.
Brezza delivers the goods in spades, and I am hardly surprised that locally all-important food site Eater Las Vegas named it Restaurant of the Year 2021. It’s also got a huge outdoor patio, not too common at restaurants on the Strip.
But Brezza is just the tip of the delicious new Italian iceberg…
Amalfi By Bobby Flay: Named for one of the world’s most famous chefs and one of Italy’ s most beautiful regions, this exemplifies the depth of the new Las Vegas love affair with Italian regional cuisine – mainly because it displaced one of the world’s most famous chef’s most famous and longstanding concept, Southwestern influenced Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace. Amalfi just opened last month (May 2022) and while I only had appetizers, I had a lot of them, including grilled octopus and crispy squash blossoms, and they were all delicious. There is a lot of use of impactful Italian flavorings such as anchovy vinaigrette, Calabrian chiles, pancetta and pistachio pesto, and it transports you to the Old Country.
But given that Amalfi is a coastal Mediterranean region, the big thing is fish, and to that end Flay went over the top, installing a standalone “fish-market” area where the wares are on ice in gorgeous round blue tiled displays, and you go over and check the seafood out and get a rundown on each selection and cooking options (similar to the way they do it at Las Vegas’ best Greek eatery, Estiatorio Milos, now relocated to the Venetian). The staff fishmonger can explain where each one is from and when it landed at the casino, and the stunning array of fresh fish and shellfish help give the whole gorgeous place a very Italian coastal feel. All of this is nicely complemented by a selection of Italian-inspired cocktails and wines from the Campania region. It’s the newest, hottest eatery in one of the most venerable casino resorts on the strip, Caesars Palace.
RPM Italian: This one is even newer than Amalfi, and had only been open a week or two when I visited. It’s also in Caesars – sort of – located in the Forum Shops retail mall, all the way at the far end from the casino and hotel, where a separate entrance from the Strip is, which makes it an exceptionally easy spot to get in and out of by Vegas standards, and convenient on foot from the Mirage, Venetian and Harrah’s. RPM Italian is a satellite of an already popular Chicago eatery, and again, has a high level of Italy-centric touches, especially a wide slate of fresh pastas, nearly a dozen including the very Roman classic, cacio e pepe, and a delicious carbonara served beautifully with an egg yolk atop it. The pastas were excellent, as was the grilled branzino with capers and green olive salsa. They also offer a dry-aged take on Bistecca Fiorentina, using USDA Prime beef to serve two to four (38-ounces). They do have a “Classics” section for the red sauce lovers with spaghetti and meatballs and eggplant parmesan, but he most unique twist here is a fancy “Prosciutto service,” with a platter of 20 month aged sliced ham adorned with an antipasti spread and house made grissini, a cool way to dive into a taste of Italy’s artisan cuisine. It’s a stylish and buzzy space that oozes fun.
Toscana Ristorante & Bar: Also brand new, this is the third notable Italian spot to open in the city in a one-month span, a Tuscan-focused spot in Eataly. While many of the dining spots in Eataly are casual counters opening into the retail space, Toscana gets its own enclave, a 94-seat dining room hidden behind ivy-covered archways within the market, a design meant to evoke the feel of a Tuscan garden. It has a showpiece wood-fired grill just like you would find in the namesake Italian region, and a signature Bistecca Fiorentina, suddenly Sin City’s hottest over-the-top sharing dish. This one is 42-ounces, using exceptional Creekstone Farms beef. But there are a lot of tempting sounding offerings on the menu (I have not been yet), including homemade pappardelle pasta with ragu di cinghiale (wild boar meat sauce), the most traditional Tuscan soup, ribollita, and of course, branzino. The wine and cocktail list is exclusively Italian and almost all Tuscan, and one cool invention is a make your own Negroni bar, where you choose a gin (five options), bitters (five options) and vermouth (five options) for a whopping 125 possible combinations of the drink Florence is famous for.
Brera Osteria: This one opened last year in the Venetian, and is named for a neighborhood in Milan that is supposedly the birthplace of “Happy Hour.” As such the restaurant promotes a weekend 3-5 Happy Hour with discounted food and beverage. I have not been, and the menu is a bit all over Italy, but features some signatures of Milan and Northern Italy, most notably risotto, a dish that is fantastic when done right but done right at only a small percentage of restaurants offering it in this country. The fact that the version of risotto Milanese at Brera Osteria is served with a roasted marrowbone is definitely a good sign, and acclaimed LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold described chef Angelo Auriana’s rice dishes as “marvelous things.” There’s also a hearty braised pork shank, Rome’s cacio e pepe with homemade pasta, the prerequisite branzino and a very promising sounding take on grilled octopus, served with mussels, Calabrian nduja and chickpea puree.