Julian Serrano probably didn’t need a third Las Vegas restaurant. The Spanish-born chef made a name for himself in Las Vegas with Bellagio’s fine French restaurant Picasso, which after 16 years can still hold its own against the Paris masters who came to town years later. With his eponymous Aria restaurant, he returned to his roots and gave this city its first taste of high-end tapas—another huge success. But he apparently wanted to expand his repertoire. That brings us to Lago, where he’s applying the Spanish shareable small-plates model to Italian food, something I can’t recall seeing elsewhere nearby. And just weeks after opening, he’s already knocking it out of the park.
Lago replaces Osteria del Circo in a prime piece of Bellagio real estate between Le Cirque and Hyde nightclub that has one of resort’s best views of its famed fountains. Thanks to a complete remodel, the space looks larger than its predecessor, and now offers outdoor patio seating on the man-made lake. The main color scheme is stark white and bright blue, making it feel more like Miami or some other beach town than Las Vegas. And while the long, wide bar area separates the more formal rear dining area with its lake views and the front lounge that opens onto the casino floor, both spaces are more casual and a bit louder than any of Bellagio’s other waterfront restaurants.
Lago’s two-page menu is divided into 16 sections, so it’s tough to know where to begin. But since this is Italian food, I’ll start with the pizzettes and pastas, both of which are outstanding across the board. The former feature nice chewy crusts that works well whether they’re topped with simple fresh tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, or drenched in creamy ricotta and piled high with slices of salty speck. My favorite pasta so far has been the delicate cylinders of light-as-air gnocchi filled with sharp blue cheese. But I also loved a rich red-wine risotto with burrata cheese and small morsels of sardegna in a tomato and pork sauce, as well as fusilli in a mildly gamey lamb ragu with a touch of ricotta foam.
Seafood dishes have also been great. An assortment of fresh crudo (raw fish) was delicately seasoned with citrus, as well as individual ingredients to accent each fish species. And while the skin on a piece of roasted branzino could’ve been just a touch crispier, the flesh was flaky and moist, and it was served with a wonderful combination of capers, olives and tomatoes that brought to mind a putanesca sauce.
The parade of other great dishes is almost too long to remember. There was octopus with luxurious squid-ink Sardinian-style cous cous; beautiful, large langoustines split down the middle and broiled with their shells on; meatballs worthy of my grandmother; and tender slow-cooked short ribs.
So far, I’ve only had one dish I’d describe as adequate, but average: a by-the-book take on vitello tonnato (cold veal with tuna caper dressing). And I was truly disappointed with an order of squid stuffed with chilled shrimp that looked like a hard-boiled quail egg and needed a lot more flavor and color.
Given the way the small-plates are priced (and the fact that full entrées are also available), it’s tough to estimate the cost of a meal here going in. On my most recent visit, my wife and I had a light diner that filled us up, with one beer each, for $90 before tip. Of course, it would be easy to spend much, much more, particularly if you’re really hungry.
Regardless of the cost, for my money, Lago is one of the more interesting and fun restaurants to open so far this year. And for that we have to thank Serrano for trying something new.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Margherita pizzette ($14)
- gnocchi alla Romana ($14) fusillioro ($15)
- and branzino Livornese ($16)
In Bellagio, 866-259-7111. Open for dinner 5-11 p.m. Sun-Thu; open 5 p.m.-midnight Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $100-$250.