Onda had secretly been one of the better Italian restaurants on the Strip, a warm, golden-hued room with solid cuisine set deep inside the Mirage since it opened in 1989. Then last year, it began an equally quiet transition into something new, bringing on a new chef and a much more streamlined menu of what appear to be classic, familiar dishes.
Looks are deceiving. Now the place is called Portofino, and though no significant design renovations have been made yet, this is very much a new restaurant. Thanks to some fun twists and turns by the hand of chef Michael LaPlaca, this classic, familiar food is generally exceptional. In the case of the softest, lightest gnocchi ($26) I’ve ever tasted, dressed with wild mushrooms and truffle cheese, or the savagely rich fettuccine in uni butter ($39) with caviar and perfectly seared day boat scallops, this food borders on brilliance.
LaPlaca has arrived. He’s a young but experienced chef, having spent time under greats like Bradley Ogden and Alex Stratta and helping open the neighborhood’s outstanding Due Forni. LaPlaca is doing his own thing at Portofino and clearly enjoying himself, cutting fresh pasta to order, creating a scrumptious hybrid of crab cake and arancini ($18), and fashioning incredible meatballs from beef scraps swiped from neighbor Heritage Steak. Rao’s has been my favorite meatball in town for a while—suddenly it’s a toss-up.
The flavorful elevation of a simple favorite like meatballs—slathered in deep red tomato sauce and topped with a goat cheese-filled, lightly fried squash blossom ($15)—creates a desire to taste the other “regular” dishes to see if they’re as well executed. Exhibit B: Chicken Parmesan ($35) is done as a “rollatini,” with leg and thigh used to make a sausage that is wrapped with pounded-flat white meat, fried in breadcrumbs and decorated with marinara and mozzarella.
But you won’t get halfway through that entrée, or the snapper ($40) cooked with white wine, olives and artichokes, or the roasted branzino ($38) with olive oil fingerling potato salad. You’ll be full from helplessly devouring some of the best pasta dishes in the city, such as the baconiest spaghetti carbonara ($28) and burrata-filled agnolotti ($36) in fresh, sweet, roasted corn butter with lobster and chanterelles.
It remains to be seen what will happen to this restaurant’s charming wine lounge and white marble bar, or its sunken dining room lined with emerald and cream furnishings. The greatest change has already occurred, and it’s an aggressive upgrade. Prices are a bit higher and some new dishes could overwhelm familiar visitors, but that’s what comes with ambition. This piece of Mirage’s culinary evolution might be a work in progress, but it’s a delicious movement.
Portofino Mirage, 866-339-4566. Thursday-Monday, 5-10 p.m.