Traveling cross country for the past six months has afforded me the privilege of experiencing great people, places and more importantly, food. Driving into the North End in Boston, a couple of neighborhoods in lower Manhattan and Chicago, the 9th Street Market in Philadelphia, country roads in Napa Valley or a walk through the North Beach district in San Francisco, I find myself contemplating Italian cuisine. Daily Italian cuisine intrigues my mind and invigorates my spirit. It’s not only what they eat or how they eat it, but more so the ambience and structure of how a culture places such high importance on dining.
Personally, these elements truly make Italian food Italian. Part of this curiosity must come from my heritage. “Being Jewish, you know that 75% of your life will be spent in a Chinese or Italian restaurant.” Growing up in an Italian neighborhood, my best friends family (yes, they are Italian) have raised me on their food and culture.
I want to uncover the recipes that have been passed from ancestors to the Chef de Cucina’s here in this desert city of Las Vegas.
James Beard Award winning Chef Luciano Pellegrini of Valentino inside the Venetian Hotel was born in Bergamo, Italy. Pellegrini relocated to the United States in 1985. Since his arrival, he has undoubtedly set a standard in the industry. Backed by his culinary flair and marvelous entrees, Valentino has been named Best Italian Restaurant by the Las Vegas Life Epicurean Awards. Chef Pellegrini also oversees the menu in the more traditional “grill room” next door, which he says “gives him a lot of pleasure to truly represent my mother on the menu with her lasagna alla bolognese and the veal osso buco with creamy saffron rice.
Next up is Mimmo Ferraro, chef/owner of Ferraro’s Restaurant on Flamingo Blvd. Ferraro was born and raised here in Las Vegas and has taken over the family business after graduating from the California Culinary Academy, and studying at length in Tuscany, Italy. A lifetime of knowledge is recognized with awards including the “5 Star Diamond Award”, “DiRona Award of Excellence”, and the “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence”. In the words of Gino Ferraro, Mimmo’s father, “I taught him everything he knows!!!” It shows in the menu, full of generation’s old recipes. “We make our own pork sausage, flavored with red wine and fennel seeds. It’s a side dish accompanied with roasted bell peppers that sells around 40# a week” says chef Mimmo. But do not forget to try the Tripe Calabrese- the tripe is slowly braised for 4-5 hours and served with a slightly spicy, flavorful tomato broth!
Over at the Wynn Resort, Chef Paul Bartolotta was only 24 when he was named chef de cuisine at the esteemed Ristorante San Domenico in Italy. Chef Paul then opened San Domenico’s lauded New York outpost and spent nine years running the stoves at Chicago’s Spiaggia which helped him win a James Beard Award in 1994. Now at his namesake restaurant, he showcases some of the Mediterranean’s best seafood while highlighting food that is simple. Chef Paul interprets and thinks about ““Cucina tradizionale” (traditional Italian cooking) differently then most chefs. He see’s it in a very pure form or what he calls “my mantra”! The philosophy of generational cooking is not about an old piece of paper passed down, but using the exact ingredients that are used currently in Italy. Chef Paul has these ingredients (such as the octopus from a section of the northern tip of the Mediterranean Sea) shipped by boat or plane. Combining these ingredients with “of course” imported olive oil, lemon and potatoes for his Ligurian octopus insalata appetizer or the balsamic vinegar from Reggio-Emila, you can taste the quality. Where this restaurant really shines is in the many species of indigenous fish brought in from the Adriatic, Tirreno, Ionia and Liguria Seas; such as Pra (purple snapper), Sarago (black bass) and Scampo (royal langoustine). I guess to truly cook like “Nonna” it helps to use the same ingredients and have someone like Steve Wynn to pay for the shipping!
Then there is Steve Martorano! Let’s just say he does it “his way” at Café Martorano in the Rio Hotel. His resume has no big starred or diamond restaurants under his belt, but he still turns out great food for the “in crowd” in Miami and Las Vegas. Chef Steve’s secret is to stay true to the philosophy learned side-by-side from his strong Italian family in Philadelphia. Enjoy the classic veal parmigiana—tenderloin of veal lightly breaded then layered with fresh mozzarella, imported San Marzano tomatoes (its true, I saw them) and home made gnocchi. The music maybe too loud, but the food screams classic home cooking!
Brothers Fernando and Gino Masci born and raised in Abruzzo, Italy, have pulled out all the stops at one of the more luxurious dining rooms on the strip at their Il Mulino restaurant located in Caesars Palace. They told me in the interview that their torta di formaggio- Italian style cheesecake served with whipped cream and zabaglione is the exact recipe that their great-great grandmother has past down through the generations. As well as the fresh porcini mushroom ravioli accompanied by a black truffle champagne sauce. Just imagine the spread Sunday night for dinner at Grandma’s house!!!
Rounding out the list is Nove’s “Top Chef” Geno Bernardo who still uses his grandmother’s recipe for meatballs. Putting a twist on the classic recipe, Geno substitutes Kobe Beef for regular ground beef. I guess Geno goes food shopping with a larger wallet! Diners can also enjoy the “stuffed artichokes” derived from his great grandmother’s recipe. Chef Geno stuffs each leaf of the artichoke with fresh herbs, garlic and parmesan cheese. With a long prep time, Geno insists it has to be done that way! Sinatra did it his way and so do all those great grandmothers!!!
For generations, many Americans associated Italian cooking with pizza, spaghetti and meatballs. Thanks to many of today’s great Italian chefs across the U.S of A and to some very talented chef’s in Las Vegas, the perception of Italian cuisine has evolved.
“Don’t Cook, Make Reservations”