In the Belly of the Bistro

Singin’, swingin’, swillin’ and chillin’ (and chowing down) at the historic Bootlegger Bistro, where Old Vegas is forever young

The piano man George Bugatti entertains the dinner crowd on Friday and Saturday at the Bootlegger Bistro. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

The piano man George Bugatti entertains the dinner crowd on Friday and Saturday at the Bootlegger Bistro. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

My waitress, the 32nd lieutenant governor of the State of Nevada, is explaining my ravioli to me. Choices must be made. Cheese or meat? Sauces, too. Meat or perhaps the rosé? Subtle ingredient and taste variations apply. Add to this the panini bread decision vis-à-vis dipping: Do I want it sauced-up or naked?

While weighing options for my festa Italiano, I’ve also got an ear trained on something so pretty that it’s not so much a song as an aural caress. Originating in the lounge, just a few feet from our well-positioned bar table—courtesy of my waitress, who has some pull here—is a live, lush soundtrack. Amplified and piped through to the restrooms, the dining nooks and the parking area—where it wafts into Strip traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard South—it purrs with the seductive melody of “Caught Up in the Rapture,” the Anita Baker hit interpreted by open-mic-night singer Lisa Gay. Keyboards, guitar and drums provide the sensual strains beneath Gay’s insinuating vocals.

Later, I realize—after an evening of sampling the tastes and the tunes—that this song title isn’t hyperbolic as it relates to the Bootlegger Bistro.

• • • • •

Clarification: our ex-looey-guv—for informality’s sake, let’s address her as Lorraine Hunt-Bono—isn’t technically my waitress. More like my order-adviser, before she gives the actual waiter his marching orders for the visitor’s victuals. (Splitting the pasta difference, I’ve settled on a half-cheese/half-meat helping of ravioli, abetted by a rich meat sauce.)

 From left: Great-Grandma Maria, Grandma Elda, Mama Maria and Lorraine Hunt-Bono in this undated photo on the steps of the family boarding house in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

From left: Great-Grandma Maria, Grandma Elda, Mama Maria and Lorraine Hunt-Bono in this undated photo on the steps of the family boarding house in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Now she’s pondering the role of my impromptu mom.

“I’m tempted to spoon-feed you,” she tells me as she slides over the silverware. “But I won’t.” Surprising myself—given that I’ve been feeding myself for some time now—I’m slightly disappointed not to be hand-fed by a genuine Italian mama.

Oh, and she owns this whole shebang. More accurately, she belongs to the Bootlegger’s four-generation ruling family, descending from Maria Perry—the 98-year-old matriarch/founding chef whom Hunt-Bono calls Mama.

Follow the family tree limbs down to Perry’s grandson, Ronnie Mancuso, who is Hunt-Bono’s son and chief operating officer of the Bootlegger complex (which includes an attached ballroom for private functions, and a recording studio on premises) and Mancuso’s son, Roman, who’s learning the operation pezzo per pezzo (piece by piece). Even Mancuso’s teenage daughter/Perry’s great-granddaughter Zia Mancuso, an aspiring ballet dancer, has logged some Bootlegger work hours.

Forgive the cliché, but this clan embodies that old expression: The family that cooks risotto together, schmoozes up Vegas legacy entertainers together, and thinks Cole Porter is the top, he’s the Tower of Pisa together … stays together.

New and hot? No, this is just a 43-year-old local touchstone born of Old Vegas that New Vegas and Tomorrow Vegas can’t afford to lose. (Factor in the family’s entire Vegas restaurant history and their local presence balloons to 66 years.) Whether you’ve been a Las Vegan for six months or six decades, your residency hasn’t really been rubber-stamped until you’ve been here.

Such status stems from three sources.

First, there’s the Bootlegger’s longevity, underscored by the overwhelming collection of photos for public perusal. Doubling as a family album and walk of fame on the walls, they hearken back to the town’s early stirrings and stars. Browse around if you’ve got a couple of hours to spare between courses. If your fame frame of reference stretches from Jimmy Durante to Andrew Dice Clay with scores of Vegas icons in between—plus reams of family snapshots, such as the relative who hilariously posed with his ill-fitting glass eye—you’ll need every minute.

“Young people stand there, look at all the pictures, and go, ‘Oh, my God, we finally found Vegas; this is what I expected Vegas to be,’” Hunt-Bono says. Adds Mancuso: “Other places have fake photos on the walls, old Italian stock photos, but every single photo here is real, with true stories behind them.”

Second, there’s the OMG!-look-who’s-in-the-house-tonight! unpredictability, with the here’s-the-mic-now-get-yer-butt-onstage spontaneity of this throwback palace.

La famiglia Ronnie Mancuso, Lorraine Hunt-Bono, Roman Mancuso, Dennis Bono and Mama Maria Perry—four generations of the Bootlegger Bistro. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

La famiglia
Ronnie Mancuso, Lorraine Hunt-Bono, Roman Mancuso, Dennis Bono and Mama Maria Perry—four generations of the Bootlegger Bistro. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik<./em>

“Most of the evening is filled with greatness and soon-to-be-greatness,” says Kelly Clinton-Holmes, the veteran host of the weekly Monday open-mic nights. “There’s something in the walls here. It’s the history, the energy—people love it.”

Asking around, we collected a sampling from family and friends of notable drop-ins, presented here as a memory pinwheel:

Billy Eckstine used to come in all the time, and Sarah Vaughan, and I remember listening to trombonist Carl Fontana playing licks, with Ella Fitzgerald scatting. And Billie Holiday’s accompanist, Bobby Tucker, would come in … Pink came in and asked if she could sing; she did a torch song, and was up there with Sonny King … Kristin Chenoweth from Broadway came up and did a song … Michael T. Ross from Raiding the Rock Vault asked if he could play the piano … Sheena Easton came up and did “Summer Nights” from Grease … Bill Medley got up and sang “The Time of My Life” … Bonnie Raitt, and Mary Wilson from the Supremes came in … Tony Orlando would jump up … Sometimes Steve Lawrence is in, Wayne Newton is in, Jack Jones is in, Clint Holmes, Frank Sinatra Jr., and before you know it, there’s nine of them up there singing …

On this night, toss in another colorful singer just here to eat and hang—an exuberant fellow to whom I’ve just been introduced, and who immediately locks me in an embrace. Someone who’s widely known, but not for crooning Gershwin, Porter, Bacharach or Broadway. Someone wearing a clock.

“Sometimes I come in and bang on the piano, ya know what I’m sayin’?” says rapper/reality show star Flavor Flav, who’s in full flavor before he’s ordered his first drink. “Not only that, but this is where I do all my meetings. These people have become my family, ya know what I’m sayin’? You get that old Vegas feel here you don’t get Downtown, ya know what I’m sayin’? Bootlegger is my spot, my home away from home, ya know what I’m sayin’? And we got Uncle Luigi over here in the corner! That’s my duuuuude!”

Ol’ Uncle Luigi? That’s him over there—that oversize doll near the reception desk. Press his audio button. You’ll see that political correctness about, say, mimicking ethnic accents is as out of place here as Irish stew:

Paisanos, ah-lo, please, come-a in and sit-a-down. I’m-a-in-a the kitchen with-a Maria makin’ the meat-a-balls. Getta you-self a seat. My familia will getta you some-a food and some-a drink. Enjoy!

Ah yes, gastronomic pleasures—the third source of the Bootlegger’s reputation, owing to recipes born early last century. On an authenticity scale, the dishes taste the way “Ave Maria” sounds. Credit the cooking chops of Perry, the Bootlegger’s mangia! mama, who is two years shy of her centennial and who relies on a walker and a wheelchair. Neither her 98 years nor her means of transportation should suggest retirement. Four times a week, Mama is here, spot-checking the kitchen staff.

“I have all the recipes perfected for the cooks, and if something isn’t right—oh, boy!” she says in an age-thinned yet still lively voice, eyes focused and smiling. “But most of the time, everything tastes the way I want it.”

Anything less would be an insult to the enduring matriarch.

“She’s like a jazz musician, the creative way she puts things together,” Hunt-Bono explains. “She learned the basics from her grandmother, but all the other stuff she did after was her own creativity. She says she doesn’t do froufrou cooking. We’d have new chefs come in, and we’d say, ‘We do mama’s cooking mama’s way.’ New ideas are always part of the Bootlegger’s menu, but it’s still about mama’s sauces.”

Lauri Perry (a.k.a. Lorraine Hunt-Bono) performs at the Tropicana in 1962.

Lauri Perry (a.k.a. Lorraine Hunt-Bono) performs at the Tropicana in 1962.

Adds frequent patron/performer Frankie Scinta: “I love their old-world recipes, whether it’s the mussels and the marinara sauce and the big piece of bread to sop up the sauce, or the pizza. I don’t know how they do it in this town, but the crust is always perfect.”

Connecting the eatery’s palate to its performances is Hunt-Bono’s husband, singer/radio host Dennis Bono: “This is the Great American Songbook of food—the meatballs and sausage, that’s Cole Porter,” he says. “We see Italian people from back East, they say, ‘My grandmother made sauce like this.’ It’s a spiritual connection for them.”

Occasionally, spiritual becomes emotional. “One woman came in, she was almost crying,” Hunt-Bono recalls. “She sat her baby down and said, ‘This is how your grandmother used to make sauce.’ He was 2 years old and didn’t know what she was saying, but it was still so sweet.”

Yesterday mingles with today, all traceable to Luigi, who’s more than just a jolly dolly to visiting paisanos. He’s the original “bootlegger.”

Cue the stroll down history lane.

• • • • •

“Everyone marvels at my grandmother,” says Ronnie Mancuso, a well-traveled rocker whose father (and Hunt-Bono’s ex-husband) is jazz virtuoso/longtime Bootlegger mainstay Gus Mancuso. “It’s an American dream story.”

Chef Stuart Luker cooks up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Chef Stuart Luker cooks up a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. | Photo by Jon Estrada

One that commences in the early 1900s, when Perry’s grandparents, Luigi and Maria Zoia, emigrated from Padua, Italy, to Niagra Falls, Ontario. At age 9, Luigi and Maria’s granddaughter was sent to live with them at the large, brick boarding house they operated. And where, during Prohibition, cash-strapped Luigi earned the nickname “the bootlegger” by serving wine made in his cellar.

“The people would come and drink, and to be honest with you, all the police would come, too,” Perry says. “Then Grandma would cook spaghetti for them, and that’s how they survived in those years.” That’s also how “the bootlegger” and his wife set the early, miniature model for the Bootlegger Bistro.

“They had to figure out how much to charge for dinner—25 cents for osso buco or risotto or whatever,” Hunt-Bono says. “They had a restaurant and bar without benefit of a license.” Also they had a granddaughter who was discovering her life’s passion.

“I learned to cook from my grandmother, but I could always throw things together,” Perry says. “Every Saturday I would bake three big cakes and three or four pies for the boarders. When I was 15, I said, ‘You know what, Grandpa? I might open a restaurant someday.’”

Across the Niagara River, on the New York side, the now-19-year-old found her love match in gregarious Albert Perry, whom she wed in 1936. In 1943, prompted by health concerns for her husband and the need to find a drier climate, the couple, their baby daughter, Lorraine, and Albert’s teenage sister relocated to Las Vegas.

In the desert, the seeds of a restaurant dynasty took root.

After a stint as a waitress in the cafeteria of a Henderson government office building, Maria Perry was promoted to cook when her kitchen flair surfaced. Yet she returned to waitressing—the tips were lucrative, and she was a strong earner—at the old Sal Sagev on Fremont Street. There, fate—in the form of a chef named Domenic Piscatelli—walked in. Piscatelli grew to appreciate Perry’s epicurean abilities and took her along to his new job at the Fiesta Villa Ristorante on the Strip, which drew megawatt clientele, including Clark Gable, Bugsy Siegel, Jane Russell and Clara Bow.

Plus a certain wealthy man about Vegas.

“The first time Howard Hughes came in, Domenic says, ‘I want you to take care of him,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know; he gives everybody such a hard time,’” Perry says. “And he turned out to be the sweetest guy to me. I’d give him one course, and he’d say, ‘Come over here, hold out your hand,’ and he’d slip five bucks in it. That was a lot of money in the ’40s.”

By 1949, the Perrys were ready to leap up to the ownership level, but they moved to Tempe, Arizona, to do it, opening the Casa Loma restaurant with Piscatelli. However, the Vegas siren song was too seductive, luring them back in the early 1950s.

One of the Bootlegger’s many walls of fame. | Photo by Jon Estrada

One of the Bootlegger’s many walls of fame. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Flash forward to 1955 when the couple partnered with Maria’s sister, Angie, and her husband, Lou Ruvo, to open the Venetian Pizzeria on Fremont Street, and then, in 1963, the Venetian Restaurant on West Sahara Avenue. Celebrity cachet followed them there, too.

“Marlene Dietrich used to come in,” Perry says of the era when the movie goddess appeared at the Plaza with Sammy Davis Jr. and Louie Prima. “‘Where’s my pizza? Where’s my pizza? Do you have my pizza, Mary?’ She was so cute.”

In a nice touch of symmetry in 1969, Hunt-Bono—by this time a professional singer going by the name Lauri Perry—helped open the Landmark Hotel owned by the gentleman who once slipped a one-course five-spot into her mother’s hand. Making money performing with her group, the Lauri Perry Four, Hunt-Bono tapped an innate real estate savvy and purchased land at Tropicana and Eastern avenues, where she and her parents created the original Bootlegger in 1972.

While the Bootlegger blossomed, Hunt-Bono moved into politics, becoming a Clark County Commissioner in 1995 and lieutenant governor in 1999, serving until 2007, the same year her father, Albert, passed away. Two years into her tenure in Carson City, the Bootlegger in 2001 hopscotched over to its current locale at 7700 Las Vegas Boulevard South, where it functions as a round-the-clock hangout. (Stop by around sunrise and try the Omelettes Perferiti—with your choice of Italian sausage, Italian ham, salami, onions, peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and cheddar or mozzarella cheese—for breakfast.)

“We have this multigenerational situation now,” Mancuso says. “At 6:30 at night you have the older crowd coming in for an early dinner. And if you come in late at night, there will be a bunch of Cirque du Soleil performers and rock stars at 2 in the morning. In a town that tends to blow everything up and destroy its roots, in here there’s the depth of an old-school Italian family. We really are that.”

And they don’t just say it. They sing it.

• • • • •

Crooning in the lounge on a recent Saturday evening, pianist George Bugatti poses some musical questions—originally asked by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin—about whether the stars are out tonight, and whether we know if it’s cloudy or bright. Two twenty-somethings at the bar only have eyes for each other, but they get up and slow dance to Bugatti’s brandy-smooth vocals as Flavor Flav dines to the tunes and other patrons look, listen and even mouth the lyrics.

“This is authentic and people want that, especially when there’s not a lot of it,” says Bugatti, who fills the Friday/Saturday night spots on the seven-night-a-week entertainment lineup that also includes sultry lounge vocalist Laura Shaffer on Sundays.

Hostess Kelly Clinton-Holmes | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Hostess Kelly Clinton-Holmes | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

“If you look around, it’s steeped in romance. Why would some place stay around so long if there wasn’t something magical about it?”

Two nights later, at the regular Monday music/comedy open-mic night, several performers—all of whom have signed up to get up, their names placed on cards in the lounge—are trying to make magic, backed by a trio led by keyboardist Mike Clark.

“It’s like living in another time,” says host Clinton-Holmes. “Everyone loosens up. We do this for sometimes four hours on a Monday night, and people stay.”

On this night, there are no widely recognizable performers. Instead, it’s a steady stream of solid singers after Lisa Gay, who follows up her Anita Baker “Rapture” cover with a buttery “Lovin’ You.” Meeting the challenge of the octave-climbing Minnie Riperton classic, she leads patrons in the familiar, repetitive “la-la-la-la-la” refrain.

T-Fox | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

T-Fox | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Up next, Don Allen Hunley pulls off some vocal gymnastics on “Route 66,” then shifts into a deeply soulful “Summertime.” Before the first set is over, Grant Griffin has mined the Broadway vein with “The Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera; Toscha Comeaux has jacked up the jazz quotient with high-spirited scatting to “Almost Like Being in Love”; and Judy Garland tribute artist Denise Rose has assumed the icon’s melodramatic persona on “The Man That Got Away,” adding “Over the Rainbow” as an encore.

“We’ve watched some young people come in who were just starting and seen them develop to where they’re pursuing this now,” Clinton-Holmes says. “A lot of people have gotten a lot of work from this.”

Others don’t need more work, but pop up anyway, such as singing impressionist Bob Anderson, who’s currently collecting kudos for his concert-length Frank Sinatra tribute at the Palazzo. “People, for no cost except their meals, they get to see the entertainment that’s happening today. They sit there and hope somebody will come by that’s a headliner, and they get that,” says Anderson, who’s been that Bootlegger bonus several times.

“Kelly won’t insist on it, but she’ll keep looking at you,” he says. “So Clint [Holmes, her husband] and I will take the mic and harmonize for 15 minutes, then Kelly takes the mic and says, ‘Sit down you guys; you’re hogging the mic.’”

Scinta, who performs with his brother, Joey, at The D, knows the feeling.

“You go in for a drink or three and think, I’m tired; I’ll just sit and watch. But as soon as someone sees you—‘Look who’s in the house!’” Scinta says. “You hear that applause, and being an entertainer that adrenaline picks your body up, and you’re 16 again.

 Michael Monge takes his turn during open-mic night on a recent Monday. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Michael Monge takes his turn during open-mic night on a recent Monday. | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

“Before Kelly, I remember [late cabaret singer] Sonny King used to run the Saturday nights. All the Vegas lounge acts, after their shows they couldn’t wait to come in there and have a ball. We’d all end the night together onstage.”

Other Bootlegger memories have a touch of pathos, such as those of the woman dubbed “the queen of R&B,” Ruth Brown, who died in 2006. “Ruth Brown finished her life and legacy at the Bootlegger,” Dennis Bono says.

“She sat onstage on a throne that we built for her. She was getting older, but she could still perform the blues like you never heard. She revived her life and career here. The family takes great pride in that.”

• • • • •

My waitress, the 32nd lieutenant governor of the State of Nevada, has left me to devour my ravioli (I do, every bite) and panini bread (I do, every crumb). After several hours of open-mic-night serenades, I wipe the stray meat sauce off my chin and head off.

Music trails me—into the restroom, out the main doors and into the parking lot, where I open my car window so the sounds can follow me onto the Las Vegas Strip before finally fading from my ears. Though I’m swiftly swept back into the hubbub of New Vegas, I know that Old Vegas is always just a plate of pasta away.

Paisanos, I’m-a-in-a the kitchen with-a Maria makin’ the meat-a-balls.

Grazie, Luigi.

Lisa Gay and Don Allen Hunley | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

Lisa Gay and Don Allen Hunley | Photo by Jason Ogulnik

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