I have to admit: I love the cheese of Las Vegas. I’m talking about the places that seem like they should be long gone, but they’re so much fun. I love having the chance to dress up and dive into a slice of history that still lives on, against the odds, mostly in a kitschy way. To properly celebrate this phenomenon, I created a bucket list of joints that represent an older era of local dining, and I’m going to eat my way through all of them with my wife, Roni. These establishments are the equivalent of dinner theater; the cast of characters is made up of the owners, servers, chefs and food. The ambiance can’t be re-created or denied. It can be quite a show … so bring on the cheese!
Battista’s Hole in the Wall was started by an Italian immigrant who landed in New York in 1949. (I was negative 7 years old then.) Battista Locatelli came to Las Vegas to be a famous singer and instead bought a dive behind the Flamingo. He opened his restaurant there in 1970, serving affordable and tasty Italian food and wine with a great atmosphere that made everyone who came through the door feel like part of the family. The menu has not changed; the vintage Sinatra photos still hang along with a hoarder’s gallery of gaudy assurance that you are in the right place. How could I resist? Reservation for four, please.
A huge, warm smile greeted us as we were escorted to our booth in one of the eight rooms that make up Battista’s. As we relaxed in the red pleated banquette—charmingly lumpy from possible celebrity sittings of the past—our heads swiveled to take in the crazy décor. Before we knew it, two carafes of included-in-the-price-of-admission house wine landed, red and white. (I did ask to see the wine list for an upgrade … I’m a snob.) The menu is written on the wall, displaying all the classic dishes that made Italian food so popular in this country so many years ago. It reminded me of my dad taking the seven Moonen kids to the Italian restaurant in our New York neighborhood, which didn’t happen often. That’s what made it so special.
Our waiter knew the menu inside, out and backwards and described the food with gusto, using blurry hands and enthusiastic arms. I ordered four-cheese lasagna; Roni, the steak Pizzaiola; and our guests, scampi and veal parm. Salad, minestrone soup and garlic bread arrived seconds later. The salad was a perfectly dressed mix of chicory, romaine, olives, pepperoncini, salami, mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. The toasty bread was hot out of the oven, light with garlic and cheese—comfort food at its best. My minestrone, obviously not from a can, provided the perfect companion to the garlic bread, shooting me back to my childhood. Like the food critic late in Ratatouille, I couldn’t help but smile.
At this point I had to order a side of meatballs to come with our entrées, because that is what you do. The steak was a perfect medium rare, even if it could have used a bit more seasoning. My lasagna had great depth of flavor and texture. Did I mention that I like cheese? The crispy veal had a very good gravy and awesome cheesy spinach perfumed with fennel and nutmeg (I’m stealing that combo). The plates were hot when the food arrived, a little detail that says We Care, and that’s the bottom line for any dining experience. Thank you, Battista’s.
I was quite full, but the kitchen offers a complimentary cappuccino, so I needed a spumoni for the center of the table. Pistachio, chocolate and cherry—what’s not to love? As I pushed back and looked up to take in the fishnet ceiling one more time, I realized I was well cared for here, without ever feeling rushed or like a tourist in my own town. This hole in the wall was well worth the visit. Bravo! What’s next, Vegas?
When he’s not dining at classic Vegas restaurants, Rick Moonen is chef and owner at RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room at the Shoppes at Mandalay Place.