Mario Batali Finds a Little Old World in This Very New City

The celebrity chef will host the Grand Banquet, a family feast modeled after traditional Italy

Mario Batali

Mario Batali | Photo by Ken Goodman

On December 6, chef Mario Batali and Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini will host the Grand Banquet at the Venetian ($500), a family-style meal that is part of the resort’s four-day La Cucina Italiana festival. Held in the hotel’s Grand Colonade, it’s intended to replicate the kind of community banquets found in the streets of Tuscan and Umbrian villages, and is being billed as a pairing of New World and Old World Italy. And few chefs are better suited for that task than Batali.

The celebrity chef has based his entire career on reinterpreting traditional recipes in a contemporary setting. He regularly travels to Italy to discover the nation’s culinary history firsthand. And the recipes he finds are often born out of poverty, thereby making use of less prized portions of animals: everything from snouts to hoofs to brains. In bringing these dishes before an American audience, some fine-dining chefs might opt to substitute fancier cuts of meat, but Batali insists on being as authentic as possible.

“People find comfort in knowing that they can always get sweetbreads and tripe at my place,” he says. And I can personally attest that sharing a plate of lamb’s brain pasta with this man was a life-changing experience. But that’s not to say he doesn’t embrace change.

Chef Mario Batali prepares a pizza while speaking to the crowd during a cooking demonstration at the Winter In Venice at The Venetian on November 25, 2011.  | Photo by Jeff R. Bottari/Getty Images

Chef Mario Batali prepares a pizza while speaking to the crowd during a cooking demonstration at the Winter In Venice at The Venetian on November 25, 2011. | Photo by Jeff R. Bottari/Getty Images

“What the New World Italian cuisine embraces is the Old World ideology of simplicity, yet using ingredients that might not be indigenous [to Italy],” the chef says. “Dario comes from a place called Panzano in Chianti. And they pretty much eat the beans and the cabbages and the chestnuts and the wheat from literally 40 miles around them. We’ve attempted to do the same thing [in Las Vegas] in our own micro-regional 300-mile circle. But then we use the Italian techniques.”

Las Vegas being a town that always wants to reinterpret itself, we have no shortage of chefs embracing the latest trends. That doesn’t bother the traditional Italian master in the least.

“The beauty of the place where food is right now is that there is definite Old School, [and] there is also a super-new technique,” he says when asked about the current state of dining. “And as the pendulum has swung between where we started at Babbo [in New York]—which was a celebration of the really old—and now, [with chefs] using foams, it will settle somewhere in the middle.”

So in our town, where the pendulum is still swinging rather rapidly, where would the chef take his sons to give them a taste of the true Old World style of cooking he’s dedicated his life to? Surprisingly, he says he’d start his lesson with something new.

“I’d first probably go to a place like Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, just to see what the hell I could show my child that is not Old World—although [Gagnaire] has Old World flavors,” he says. But he’d follow that up with more traditional offerings.

“Then I’d take them to the Old World places. I would say more interesting than anything, almost, is Emeril Lagasse. I love all the things that he does. For Old World meets New World I’d go take a look at Joël Robuchon. For classic Old World Italian, I’d probably look for something like mine. But I’d also go to Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, which does a great job bridging both, but really stands as an anchor of the great tradition of Italian seafood cooking.”

Of course, all of those experiences are available year-round, while the Grand Banquet promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Winter in Venice

Winter in Venice

Il Vostro Itinerario

In addition to Batali’s Grand Banquet, the following events will also be part of La Cucina Italiana.

Dinner with Wolfgang
Wolfgang Puck and Dario Cecchini host this carnivore’s dream dinner, featuring Cecchini’s favorite Tuscan dishes and personal stories from the pair. $250, 7 p.m., Dec. 5, Cut, in the Palazzo.

How to Italian
For three hours, an all-star lineup of chefs and mixologists will offer a series of lessons in how to create great Italian food and drink. Participants will include Buddy Valastro, Mario Batali, Barbara Seelig-Brown and Vivien Reimbelli. $50, 11 a.m., Dec. 7, Waterfall Atrium in the Palazzo.

Bella Notte
Robin Leach will honor influential Italian-Americans who have had an impact on U.S. culture over fine Italian cuisine provided by various visiting chefs. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. $150, 7 p.m., Dec. 7, Doges Palace in the Venetian.

Truffle Hunt
Guests will visit three restaurants to sample truffle creations and wine pairings. $150, 11 a.m., Dec. 8, B&B Ristorante, Carnevino and Otto in the Venetian and the Palazzo.