Sirio Maccioni is a living legend. one of a kind. The last of the great ones. At one time he represented the ne plus ultra of restaurateurs in New York, which pretty much means he was the standard bearer for gourmet in America. Between its opening in 1974 through the mid-'90s, his restaurant, Le Cirque, was the most famous in the country. Back then, restaurants were the domain of their autocratic owner, and chefs were employees who cooked according to his taste and demands.
Sirio in Aria is a throwback of sorts. There's no chef's name on the door, and it's still run the old-fashioned way: Mario, the oldest son, oversees all three of their Vegas rooms; when he takes a break, one of his brothers, Marco or Mauro, is always around to make sure each hums like a finely tuned engine. (Patriarch Sirio is often in town as well.) The chef they employ at Sirio — Vincenzo Scarmiglia — has proven chops; he ran the kitchen at the Maccioni's delightful, Tuscan-inspired Circo in the Bellagio for years.
With Sirio, both he and the Maccionis are being asked to do something neither has done before: Feed hordes of middle-brow conventioneers hackneyed Italian standards, at fairly high prices, in a tough economy, in hopes that no one will notice the generic nature of the menu. I noticed. But I also noticed you can eat very well here, if you stick with the clichés this kitchen does best.
One cliché to avoid: the pizzas. Ordering one at a Maccioni restaurant is like asking an opera singer to belt out "My Way," but if you insist, the thin crust tastes like crisp matzo, onto which various toppings are strewn about to no great effect. I don't know when or why it became fashionable to put potatoes on top of bread, but they show up on the pizza bianca con patate, gorgonzola e speck. There's nothing wrong with any of the other four offerings — other than they taste like afterthoughts.
Opt for the carpaccio, and you get good, thin, raw beef sullied by white truffle oil. To any lover of real Italian food, white truffle oil is to the real thing what Steak'umm is to prime porterhouse. Unfortunately, it shows up all over town in restaurants that should know better.
Something Scarmiglia knows better: Italian meats and cheeses. His antipasto platters are top-shelf, and his selection of all-Italian fromaggi is highlighted by Castelmagno — the rare Piedmontese cow-sheep's milk cheese. Start your meal with a few nibbles and a slice of superior salumi, then proceed directly to the hot appetizers. There you will find eggplant parmigiana — a cliché to be sure, but one done so well that all is forgiven. Just as tasty: the trio of meatballs — veal, lamb and duck — served with fresh tomato compote.
Aside from the linguine con vongole veraci, rapini e pomodori di pachino (strangely containing broccoli rabe and tomatoes), the pastas are excellent and worth a trip unto themselves — especially the gnocchi with pesto and the richest lasagna you've ever tasted.
A lot of restaurants seem to run out of gas with their main courses, but this one gets stronger throughout your meal. Each dish sparkles with cooking care and unique sauces and sides — the ossobuco with saffron risotto nonpareil, the filet with gorgonzola cheese and polenta, the roast pork with black rice. That nutty, deeply flavored riso nero venere was new to us, and a wonderful counterpoint to the sweet pork. Seafood mains stick with the tried-and-true: sea bass, salmon, swordfish and scallops, but again, Scarmiglia dresses things up with an oregano sauce here (swordfish), a chardonnay veloute there (sea bass) and a port wine sauce everywhere about the scallops.
It's easy to criticize Sirio for playing it safe, but if you look closely, you see a restaurateur and chef trying to please the masses, while tweaking each dish to give it something special. Purists may blanch, but it's just the sort of Italian-American restaurant Aria needed.
John Curtas is the food critic for KNPR 88.9-FM and holds court online at eatinglv.com.