Las Vegas has few women chefs you could call bona fide stars outside the realm of pastry, which elevates Carioca Carla Pellegrino to the status of queen among her peers around here.
Many of us enjoyed her meatballs, lemon chicken and vodka sauce when she was executive chef at Rao’s in Caesars Palace, and, at that time, a member of the family that owns that restaurant.
Earlier this year, she opened her own neighborhood Italian place, Bratalian, where her sister, another native of Rio de Janeiro, now runs the ship. She still helps out there, but she has basically moved on to Bacio, the jewel in the crown at the completely revamped Tropicana, a resort not even mentioned in the same breath as the term “celebrity chef” for decades.
It’s mostly white up here, an oddly designed series of rooms with about a third of the tables sticking out into a hallway that doesn’t lead anywhere you’re going. The walls are white. The tablecloths are white. Many of the plates are white. Hopefully in time for fall, says the chef, the hotel will extend the dining rooms onto an outdoor patio facing the pool.
Chef Carla is glamorous, curvy, ebullient and, above all, full of confidence, and all these characteristics are reflected on your plate. Bacio, Italian for “kiss,” is a love letter to old Vegas Italian cooking combined with a few modern touches from the chef. There aren’t many surprises on her menu, and she isn’t doing lemon chicken, but most of the dishes succeed.
Fritto misto di mare, for instance, served in a gigantic pile, is composed of expertly fried calamari, shrimp, tilapia and zucchini with sides of rémoulade and a chunky marinara. I love what she does with that old chestnut pasta e fagioli, a hearty soup that pairs borlotti beans with ditali noodles, short tubes that resemble the beads used to string a necklace.
Primi, a term basically employed here to mean “pastas,” are substantial, and a strong suit. My favorite one is cavatappi con cavolini e pancetta, spiral-shaped macaroni with Brussels sprouts and bacon. But I’d love to eat her rigatoni with hot and sweet sausage at least once a week. It has a stew of sautéed onions and peppers on top, and is just fabulous.
I Secondi, Italian for “main dishes,” are definitely old-school. Pollo Scarpariello is roast chicken with that topping used for the rigatoni, plus hot cherry peppers—wonderfully filling and excessive. All the old Vegas dishes, veal or chicken Parm, scaloppini Marsala, garlic shrimp, are all done with flair here.
I find it amusing that the polpette, huge meatballs fashioned from a grind of veal, pork and beef, are listed among the contorni, side dishes. Eat two of these meatballs and I promise you aren’t having much else. Better stick to something lighter, like fresh peas with prosciutto.
Desserts are fairly classic. The best bet is probably torta di mele, an apple tart baked to-order, with a tart finish. The cannoli are delicious as well, deep-fried pastry shells filled with whipped ricotta laced with candied fruit and chocolate chips.
From the list of cordials, try the bitter amaro liqueurs, or a limoncello, just what the made guys at Rao’s used to like. Whoever thought that the Trop would be a haven for celebrity chefs?