Pink sauce and punches. My first meal at Parma involved both, because Chef Marc isn’t one to stay in the kitchen. The sauce, a luscious potion of imported tomatoes, a touch of basil and fresh cream, made simple cheese ravioli sing. As for the punches, the third-generation Italian was a Golden Gloves champion back in Miami in the ’80s, so when I asked how to throw a solid hook he did an interactive demo in the busy dining room. Nobody looked. The food is that good.
Once he describes the sandwich there is no other choice. Chef Marc puts the order in, and we sit at Parma’s bar, facing rows of sparkling glassware and a giant chalkboard where a stickman holds a glass of red that’s almost as big as he is. (Italians don’t shy away from excess.) The chef is sweating. He’s been making sausages all morning. He knows he can trust his crew, but he still wants to be there, keeping his hands in it.
Chef Marc is back at Parma after spending the summer opening the third location of Novecento, his “90-second pizzeria” serving authentic Neapolitan soft-dough pies that customers concoct from the crust up. His plan is to sell the pizzerias and to license the Novecento brand so it can spread beyond Las Vegas (he’s currently consulting on an offshoot in Europe).
“I wanted to share this kind of pizza with people here and start something,” he says, explaining that a lot of first-timers don’t understand the difference between a thicker New York slice and the airy, slightly charred bite of Naples, meant to be eaten with a fork and knife and ruined by “washcloths of ingredients.” He could make it easy and only sell food people know. But Chef Marc welcomes the fight if it means the world will have more of what’s delicious. He has sampled cuisine everywhere from Japan to England, but it’s hard to beat Italian.
“It’s very simple. It’s pasta and butter with cracked pepper on top and a little pasta water and good Parmesan cheese, like a cacio e pepe,” he says, adding that “simple” refers to the ingredient list, not the act of cooking. Anyone who’s ever made risotto knows it takes real skill to nail the texture. Pasta is the same. And even the humblest sauce can be ruined with one shake of salt.
As we’re talking about his trips to Italy, which inspired him to change his last name from Ritz back to his family’s original Sgrizzi about seven years ago (with his father’s blessing), the sandwich appears. It looks like a Cuban, and it kind of is, thanks to Chef Marc’s years in the fusion culture of Miami. Ciabatta seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and herbs is layered with Dijon mustard, premium ham, Swiss cheese, slow-roasted pork belly and fennel bulb pickled overnight. I end up smeared with oil and pork fat, grinning. This is the face Chef Marc comes out of the kitchen to see.
The people of Las Vegas have spoken for the quality of Chef Marc’s cooking, whether at his original eponymous restaurant at the gateway to Summerlin or at Parma in this Trader Joe’s-anchored strip mall. “I took a risk on the location, but I know my reputation,” he says. “When you leave your house, you know you’re going to Parma.”
The restaurant opened in 2009 and gradually became one of our true neighborhood gems. Parma offers not only sit-down dining but also a “pastaria” and deli where you can buy special cheeses and cured meats and maybe a plate of grapes and rich prosciutto. There’s a mini-market of imported goodies: San Marzano tomatoes, salted capers, hot-sweet cherry peppers stuffed with tuna, Umbrian lentils and even baba, rum-spiced butter cake that comes in a jar. And just like the lounge at the original Marc’s, Parma’s central space offers comfy couches where you can indulge in a glass of Barolo and a bite, and maybe spot Nicolas Cage doing the same.
The menu is a mix of things Chef Marc knows his audience wants (lasagna), classics his dad taught him (steak el chico: spice-crusted flank finished with roasted peppers, wild mushrooms, garlic and white wine), authentic dishes (Tuscan-style Bolognese) and inventive originals (pasta inspired by Northern Thai noodles?). He’s fond of the “chef’s table” concept, where the meal is a surprise. For a recent one, the entrée was white and black pappardelle (“like piano keys”) with tuna crudo meatballs, sautéed porcini mushrooms and truffle butter with a drizzle of uni zabaione.
“They talked about it for a long time,” Chef Marc says. “This off-the-Strip of Vegas doesn’t have enough cultural things going on, but I do believe that it’s coming. … People should appreciate more what local chefs are doing and what real food is.”
Real food was the main attraction of his trips to Italy, where he worked in the kitchen of a restaurant in a town called Certaldo in the Chianti region. The sausage ragu for Parma’s beloved Bolognese? He learned to make it there. He recalls eating sun-warmed stone fruit after every meal; breaking—never cutting—pigeon necks at the instruction of a famous chef at the Grand Hotel overlooking Lake Como; hunting saffron in Tuscany and stumbling on a vineyard that made the headiest cherry wine. He traveled alone, and he didn’t plan where he was going.
“You learn a lot being in Italy, especially when you can get invited into the kitchens and down into the cellars of the vineyards, how nice people are, and they want you to like everything, too. It’s their life.”
That’s the difference between the star chefs of the Strip and the local chefs of the strip malls. Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck have so many horses in the race they can afford to lose one, and their ventures are backed by big money. As Chef Marc says, they’re names on a door. And he would know: He left a job with Charlie Palmer to open Marc’s—two weeks before 9/11 shook America.
Without an army of employees to do his bidding, Chef Marc does this all himself, simultaneously reaching for big things and struggling to please everyone, be everywhere at once and keep the backbone strong. The newest Novecento—the one he spent his summer on—just closed, though he’s working on reopening in a new location.
Would he jump at the chance to helm a fancy dining room on the Strip? “If you live in Vegas, it’s like being drafted,” he says, adding that he sees casino CEOs at Parma pretty often but has never gotten an offer. Even if the “leoparding” on his pizza crust and the chew of his gnocchi with speck cream are perfect, he still has to worry about doing enough covers to keep the doors open.
Chef Marc’s 80-something parents live in Las Vegas, too, and they dine at his places now and then. The pizza dough is different than what he learned to make by hand for his dad’s restaurant on Singer Island, Florida, but changing recipes is akin to changing his name. It’s about honoring the deepest roots of this beautiful food.
He talks about a lasagna he found in Bologna, smoked-provolone pesto and roasted vegetables with green pasta and that killer pink sauce. His eyes get cloudy. He says that anywhere he travels, food is the first thing. That’s why he breads his veal right before he cooks it, so it has “life” when it hits the pan. So you’ll remember it.
“When I go back to the table and say, ‘Can I get you anything else?’ I’m not asking you if it was good or not. You can tell me if you want to. We like to hear it. But we want to see you smile. Chefs wish they were the little fly on the wall listening to everybody, what they say about the food. But I never ask.”
Parma 7591 W. Washington Ave. #110, 702-233-6272. Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Novecento Pizzeria 5705 Centennial Center Blvd. #170, 702-685-4900, 9640 S. Eastern Ave. #130, 702-485-2900. Hours vary.