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Cucina Fantastica! A tour of some of the Las Vegas Valley’s signature Italian dishes

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Cioppino at Casa di Amore
Photo: Wade Vandervort
Photos by: Wade Vandervort

Every Las Vegas neighborhood is different, but there’s at least one thing that ties us all together, north, east, west or south. You’ve got your favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant, the place that feels like it’s been there forever even if it hasn’t, and this is the time of year when you can’t stop yourself from going back with friends and family and enjoying the soulful signature dishes you’ve been eating at your place for years. And there’s a reason you believe your place has the best chicken parm or spaghetti and meatballs that have ever been plated: You know the story behind each dish. You know exactly how the cook is putting it together, and you may have even asked for the recipe. It’s the best.

In honor of all our favorite neighborhood Italian restaurants, let’s explore some of the stories behind our favorite dishes. And let’s eat.

Cioppino at Casa Di Amore

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Sometimes you just need a dish that warms you from the inside out, bones and all, and Casa di Amore’s cioppino does just that. If you haven’t been to Casa, the local haunt is a Vegas institution that does things old-school—so while you spoon that amazingly rich seafood broth into your mouth, you’ll likely be having standards crooned to you in the style of classic Vegas lounge performers. Who doesn’t love that? And the cioppino is also as classically Italian-American as it gets. With fresh lobster, clams, mussels, scallops, crab cod and shrimp, this is one dish that’s basically loaded with the entire sea.

“It’s beloved by our customers,” manager Kathleen Kahr D’Esposito says. “It’s something that people come back for over and over. We take pride in making sure that all the ingredients are tender and fresh, and we do things the way they’re suppose to be done.” That means none of that delicious, plump seafood comes frozen, and you can tell from the first taste. “You can measure the quality of the ingredients just by how it feels in your mouth—the broth is very rich and full and it comes out piping hot. There’s nothing worse than a stingy broth.” Salute to that. 2850 E. Tropicana Ave., 702-433-4967. Wednesday-Monday, 5 p.m.-4 a.m. –Leslie Ventura

Frank's Favorite at Pasta Shop Ristorante

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“There are a couple of customers named Frank who always say it’s named for them,” laughs Ann Alenik, owner of Henderson’s beloved Pasta Shop Ristorante. No matter how well-known any of those Franks might be, however, Frank’s Favorite refers to one far more famous. “When my husband [David] was the chef at Stefano’s [at the Golden Nugget in the 1980s], Frank Sinatra used to perform there. And this was his favorite dish.”

Sinatra loved the meal so much, Alenik says, the crooner made a special request when he moved over to the MGM Grand: He asked for David to join him. “MGM sent a headhunter to bring my husband to [MGM Italian restaurant] Caruso’s, so [Sinatra] could have his favorite food there.”

These days, Frank’s Favorite is a popular staple at Pasta Shop—rigatoni in a marinara sauce loaded with chopped meat and spices, and garnished with fresh basil. It serves as a tribute to both Sinatra and David Alenik, who died in 2016 at age 58 and to whose legacy Pasta Shop remains firmly dedicated. “We’ve all always been very involved, and we carry it on in his honor,” Ann says. “From the chefs in the kitchen to the community that supports us, we’re like a family.” 2525 W. Horizon Ridge, 702-451-1893. Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. & 4:30 p.m.-close; Saturday-Sunday, 4 p.m.-close; Monday, 4:30 p.m.-close. –Spencer Patterson

Roma Ravioli at Chef Marc's Trattoria

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Marc Sgrizzi has been serving elevated Italian in his westside neighborhood restaurants for more than a decade, with unique touches like fresh pasta and regionally specific daily specials fueled by his annual overseas trips. This year he returned to his ancestral homeland, traveling through Florence, Rome, Sorrento and Naples, Venice and Milan. He sat down for a meal at a friend’s home with Italian food journalist Leonardo Romanelli and made a special pasta discovery at the tiny Trattoria Monti.

“Everybody likes an egg on their burger—that runny egg—so I thought it would be a neat idea to put that with pasta,” he says of the new dish he’s calling the Roma Ravioli at his charming restaurant at Durango and Sahara. “But you have to make the pasta very special. You have to make the pasta thinner and cook it for just a little more than a minute so that the yolk inside is warm but will still run along the plate.” The dish is finished with ricotta inside and a brown butter-sage sauce on top, with a bit of romano and parmigiano.

Sgrizzi can only make a few of these magnificent raviolis each night. “I can’t promise it to everybody. It has to be really fresh.” Thankfully he has found an egg supplier so he can keep it on the menu for a while, but there are plenty of other favorite dishes at Chef Marc’s taking up space. “We always have new dishes, and it’s not just to please me. It’s for the people.” 8615 W. Sahara Ave., 702-233-6272. Wednesday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9 p.m. –Brock Radke

Crazy Alfredo at Nora's Italian Cuisine

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At Nora’s, people are crazy about the Crazy Alfredo. It’s one of the most popular dishes at one of the most popular Italian restaurants in the Valley—a restaurant so popular, in fact, the Mauro family had to build a new restaurant to accommodate the masses, a far cry from the original 12-seat venue Nora and Gino opened in 1992.

The crazy in the alfredo refers to the myriad ingredients Nora herself combined in the dish. Three proteins—chicken, sausage and shrimp—are strewn into fettuccini with a garden’s worth of vegetables: white button and porcini mushrooms, roasted bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and even sliced jalapeños. The jalapeños are particularly prominent, endowing the dish with their characteristic heat without overwhelming the other ingredients.

The dish is rich and filling, as a hearty bowl of pasta should be. You wouldn’t be crazy for ordering Nora’s Crazy Alfredo, but you might just be if you try finishing it all by yourself! 5780 W. Flamingo Road, 702-873-8990. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday, 4-10 p.m. –Jim Begley

Osso Buco at Ferraro's Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar

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Ferraro’s menu proudly proclaims its osso buco as the “house specialty,” and at an acclaimed venue such as this, that’s no minor boast. For over 30 years, the osso buco is one of the few dishes that has remained the same at this local Italian institution.

The traditional veal shank dish, whose origins can be traced to the Lombardi region of northwest Italy, is served in grand fashion. The dish swims in a hearty red wine reduction and is accompanied by farro in lieu of the more traditional risotto alla Milanese. After a four-hour braise, the meat itself is fork tender, falling apart with only a strong gaze. And the braising liquid lives on as the aforementioned rich red wine reduction.

But the most prominent part of the presentation is the cross-cut tibia, arranged with a sprig of rosemary and a slender silver spoon. The herb is essentially decorative, but the utensil has a decidedly more utilitarian purpose: allowing you to dig out the gelatinous marrow from deep within the bone. The literal translation of osso buco from Italian is “bone hole,” and one mustn’t forget the namesake morsel of meaty marrow awaiting within.

Nowadays, the legacy is maintained by executive chef Francesco DiCaudo, who took over the helm of the family restaurant from founder Gino Ferraro’s son Mimmo. “It’s one of those dishes we’ll never change,” DiCaudo says. “If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it. 4480 Paradise Road, 702-364-5300. Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 a.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 4 p.m.-3 a.m. –JB

Vanilla Meringue Cake & Bellini at Cipriani

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Las Vegas has long been loaded with iconic restaurant brands, but the new location of Cipriani at Wynn Plaza is a different kind of big deal. It’s the first venue on the West Coast for the international luxury restaurant company that originated as Harry’s Bar in 1931 in Venice, Italy. That spot, created by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani and known as a hangout for Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Humphrey Bogart, was declared a national landmark by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs. Operated by third-generation family members, Cipriani has evolved from humble beginnings into company with hotels and clubs around the world, but it’s best known for its restaurants and signature creations.

Perhaps the most famous is not a dish but a drink; Giuseppe Cipriani created the Bellini in 1948 by blending a purée of white peaches abundant in Italy in the summertime with light, crisp Prosecco. He named it after the painter Giovanni Bellini, since the cocktail’s soft pink glow reminded the bartender of one of his favorite paintings. The Bellini is a brunch staple around the world, but it’s not the only sweet signature offering one must order at Cipriani Las Vegas. The restaurant’s beloved vanilla meringue cake is the ideal final bite, and if you’re up to it, you can attempt to make the dessert at home thanks to a step-by-step video recipe on YouTube (bit.ly/2RlxCYM). Wynn Las Vegas, 702-770-7390. Sunday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight. –BR

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