Buddy Valastro—a.k.a. TLC’s Cake Boss—is the latest celebrity to join the parade on the Strip. But in this case, he’s being backed up by a pair of top industry pros in restaurateur Elizabeth Blau and her husband, Kim Canteenwalla, one of our truly versatile chefs. And you won’t need a measuring cup to see that this all adds up to a recipe for success.
Valastro owns the stunningly popular Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, and his Las Vegas restaurant serves the foods he grew up on: dense lasagna, the ubiquitous Sunday gravy, bone-in veal parmigiana big enough to use as a snowboard. You’ve probably seen his cakes on TV, but if not, there is a display of fondant and pastillage (spun sugar fashioned in shapes and forms) near the entrance that will make you gasp for air. Is that spaghetti and meatball thing really one of Buddy’s cakes? Of course it is.
“I’m not really a chef,” Valastro said when Blau introduced me to the affable Cake Boss, who will be making regular visits to Las Vegas. “But all the desserts are mine, and many of these recipes come from my family.” So the challenge for Canteenwalla and Arturo Moscoso (a chef Blau discovered in Reno), is to interpret Valastro family fare honestly and with style, which they do quite well, thank you. The bottom line is that it’s the best Italian-American fare in Las Vegas since that other Jersey Boy, Geno Bernardo, left Nove at the Palms last year.
Did I mention that this is also a brilliantly designed restaurant? Blau and Celano Design Studio have transformed the former First Food & Bar into a veritable showcase of Italian-American kitsch, using rolling pins, chandeliers fashioned from large dough-mixer whisks, drums of tomato sauce and boxes of pasta over the open kitchen, and those inevitable red-and-white checkered napkins on every table, lest we think we’ve wandered into a Chinese restaurant by mistake.
This isn’t quite a kid restaurant, but on one of my three visits here, I dined with two kids, who were initially crestfallen that they wouldn’t be meeting the Cake Boss. But when the 8-year-old got hold of the Nutella cake, he proclaimed it “heaven on a plate,” and any disappointment was quickly forgotten. (If you care, though, Valastro will be back in December.)
So what should you eat here besides dessert? Three appetizers soar: tuna caponata (seared, spiced hunks of tuna on an eggplant, caper, tomato and pine-nut spread); charred octopus on fingerling potato, fennel and orange; and mozzarella en carozza (literally “in a carriage,” or in this case, smoked cheese lacquered with a pine-nut pesto and a tomato ragu).
I wouldn’t have thought to order pizza here, but on a different visit, dining with a vegetarian, I fell in love with the kitchen’s salty, chewy flatbread crust served in an oval on a wooden plank. I’d come back just for the Margherita, but for meat lovers, try Buddy’s Favorite, with spiced sausage, caramelized onion, fennel and four cheeses.
The best pasta might be the agnolotti, half-moon-shaped ravioli with Sunday gravy inside, floating in sage butter. I find the lasagna too dense, and My Dad’s Bucatini too creamy to be carbonara. But among the entrées, the crisp roasted branzino is amazing. Or how about that bone-in veal chop parmigiana, with a crunchy Japanese panko crust that will still be delicious two days later—nearly the time it will take to finish it.
To return to the subject of desserts, those are mostly spectacular, including a deconstructed cannoli; zeppole (Italian doughnuts) under a layer of cinnamon-sugar, served with rich chocolate and raspberry dipping sauce; and natch, Carlo’s Bakery’s famous lobster roll, a flaky, multilayer monster filled with pastry cream actually brought from New Jersey. Hoboken’s most famous son, Mr. Frank Sinatra, would probably ask for seconds.
Buddy V’s Ristorante
It the Venetian, 607-2355. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $59-$95.