There aren’t many styles of cooking that Las Vegas is missing. But the closing of Valentino in the Venetian late last year left a noticeable void in the form of Italian haute cuisine. While there are plenty of great Italian restaurants in town, none offer the style of sophisticated, high-end cooking that Luciano Pellegrini provided there. Or so I thought. Recently, however, I began to hear word of the great work executive chef Michael LaPlaca (formerly of Bradley Ogden and Due Forni) is doing at Portofino in The Mirage. And after two visits in as many nights, I’m happy to report that void has been filled with some of the most elegant and delicious Italian food imaginable.
At first glance, there’s little indication of just how great Portofino is—or that it’s even there, as it’s tucked into a forgotten corner of the casino floor. Walk past the semi-cool lounge, with vaulted ceilings and exposed brick, and you’ll find a cavernous dining room that looks like it’s been passed over for a much-needed makeover for a couple of decades. Throw in pastas priced from $26-$36 and entrées $32-$48, and dining here requires a leap of faith. Take that leap, however, and I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.
The restaurant’s menu is packed with Italian classics, and many of the descriptions fail to list the most interesting aspects of the preparations. A prime illustration is its listing for spaghetti carbonara. It states the dish is made with pork belly—probably the most over-hyped cut of meat out there, and an abomination to anyone who believes that true carbonara should be made with guanciale (pork jowl) or, at the very least, pancetta. What the menu doesn’t tell you is that the belly is mixed with smoked guanciale. The result is one of the best carbonaras I’ve ever had. I was also confused by the vague description of the “crab cake” arancini, which are actually a delicious blend of lemon-saffron risotto and crab meat shaped into crab-cake form and perfectly fried.
Another great appetizer is the meatballs, topped with red sauce and accompanied by a fried squash blossom that’s stuffed with goat cheese and bacon. It’s ridiculously rich, but loaded with flavor. From the entrée section, the branzino is prepared simply and perfectly. But the veal saltimbocca is where the chef truly shows his creativity. In this case, the menu at least hints at the bold decision to deconstruct the classic dish, offering a beautifully rendered veal medallion lightly wrapped in prosciutto, served with a spinach coulis and accompanied by a potato and cheese gratin.
Still, the real highlights are in the pasta section. In addition to spaghetti in the brilliant carbonara, the chef does wonders with several other noodles. The fresh hand-torn ripatelli (a noodle LaPlaca claims to have invented, but at the very least named) is wonderful with lamb Bolognese and roasted red peppers with a light hint of mint pesto. And his lighter-than-air burrata-stuffed agnolotti are a perfect accompaniment for lobster knuckles cooked in corn butter with chanterelle mushrooms.
If you really want to splurge, shell out a hundred bucks for the “Diamond and Gold” lasagna made with Kobe beef, Iberico ham, prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, buffalo mozzarella, porcini mushrooms and foie gras Alfredo sauce, topped with shaved white-diamond truffles and 23-karat gold leaf. It’s only on the menu through the end of the year, and it’s a super-rich feast made more for bragging rights than anything else—but you will be bragging about it.
The only even mildly disappointing dish was an order of calamari: While the seasoning was great, the squid itself was a bit on the chewy side, a minor sin that will not prevent me from returning.
In addition to being one of the city’s best Italian restaurants, Portofino is possibly its best-kept secret. I, for one, am happy to try to change that.
Al’s Menu Picks
- “Crab Cake” arancini ($18),
- Ripatelli ($26),
- burrata agnolotti ($36)
- and veal saltimbocca ($38).
In The Mirage, 866-339-4566. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Thu-Mon. Dinner for two, $80-$160.