Lavo Love

Yes, our food critic fell for the meatballs, and the rest of the Palazzo restaurant’s menu, too

At first I was confused by the slogan on the billboard advertising Lavo at the Palazzo: “If you like our dumplings, you’ll love our meatballs.” Well, Lavo doesn’t serve dumplings. Later, it was explained to me that Lavo is part of the Tao Group, whose Tao restaurant/nightclub next door at the Venetian does have dumplings.

This is worth knowing because Tao is the No. 1 grossing independent restaurant in the United States, and Lavo is projected to finish No. 7 this year. It’s obvious, then, that somebody up there knows what the people want.

A former Lavo chef, the super-talented Ludovic Lefebvre, did creatively bizarre stuff such as deconstructed Bloody Marys and Reuben-stuffed knishes, but the concept didn’t quite fit. Now, Brooklyn native John DeLoach, also a terrific talent, has converted the kitchen into an outpost of classic red-sauce Italian. The bachelor parties, models and tourists now flocking to the restaurant don’t mind one bit.

The dining areas have undergone a partial makeover as well. The Byzantine chandeliers remain, but now there is lots of red brick in place of green Moorish tiles, which clash less with the dark leather upholstery. If you include the upstairs nightclub, the cost, Mr. Bond, is about $20 million.

Come early if you want to talk above the din; the music and customers get louder as the evening wears on. Cocktails such as the Lavolini (a blend of Prosecco, passion fruit and St. Germain) and Saggio (Stoli Blueberry with sage and freshly squeezed lemon juice) help you not to care.

DeLoach cooks with an experienced hand. He’s mostly Sicilian, and a keen student of Italian cuisine, with the famous Carmine’s in New York City in his long résumé. His food ranges from Old Vegas favorites such as baby clams Oreganato (Little Neck clams with a buttery stuffing) to more contempo fare such as tuna tartare, mixed with avocado on olive tapenade. And he’s at home in either style.

I couldn’t stop eating the warm house bread, with its obscene amounts of chopped garlic and grated cheese, or the chef’s meatballs, which I do indeed love, more so served in an overkill sausage ragu.

Pasta can be a thick sausage Bolognese with rigatoni or a heart-stopping spaghetti Carbonara, made with pancetta, prosciutto and bacon—a triple threat I haven’t encountered anywhere else. Even the normally understated dish risotto gets the red carpet. DeLoach does it with braised short ribs.

Main courses will remind you of what you might get at a classic steak house, such as The Palm, or Chicago’s Gene & Georgetti. There is a live Maine lobster menu, with a steamed, broiled arrabbiata, or even stuffed with crabmeat and scallops Oreganato (for $20 more).

There are prime steaks aged 21 days, such as the Rossini, topped with foie gras, mushrooms and truffle sauce, done superbly. And there are a number of house specialties, such as a delicious brick-oven salmon or the well-traveled veal Milanese, topped with tomatoes and arugula.

By all means save room for desserts, rich, excessive choices possibly even more over the top than the décor and buzz in here. If a chocolate bread pudding or lush strawberry shortcake (a huge, buttery biscuit) is not your cup of tea, then perhaps a raspberry panna cotta or Napoleon filled with real whipped cream and sautéed apples will do.

Who needs dumplings, anyway?

Dinner is served 5 p.m. to midnight Sun.-Thurs., until 1 a.m.-Fri.-Sat. Dinner for two $88-$116. 791-1800.

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