Every Strip casino needs to refresh its restaurants every few years. Until now, Bellagio has been the only exception to that rule, rarely making changes to a dining lineup constructed with great care 17 years ago.
Lago is that exception, and its striking decor—starting with the multicolored, faux-stained-glass front wall—makes it clear this is something very different from the rest of the resort. Created by Toronto firm Munge Leung, Lago is bright and futuristic, absolutely unidentifiable from the whimsical primary colors that defined former occupier Circo. It’s louder, too. Something sci-fi-ish about it seemed familiar: the circular nature of the space, the hostesses’ angular, bright blue dresses, the spaceshippiness of the posh patio resting over Bellagio’s lake. Then it hit me. Lago is the restaurant version of Fhloston Paradise, the luxury intergalactic cruise-ship from The Fifth Element. Re-watch it and tell me I’m wrong.
Maybe Lago is Bellagio’s way of enticing the younger set to spend more time on property, but that doesn’t mean the cuisine drifts from the always-impeccable Bellagio standard. Chef Julian Serrano has maintained Picasso as one of the elite fine-dining rooms on the Strip and proven he can out-small-plate anybody with his eponymous Spanish tapas spot at Aria. Here at Lago, his massive menu of Italian treasures is only hard to handle because everything sounds so good.
Most diners don’t think of Italian food coming in small portions, but Serrano knows that if it looks beautiful and tastes that way, too, we won’t object. There are larger main courses that satisfy on every front, from a peerless veal osso buco ($45) to a whole lobster with squid ink garganelli ($55), but the smaller stuff is too much fun to bypass. Some are simply mini portions of dishes we love, like cute pizzettes or shortrib-stuffed cannelloni ($16), while others are tiny flavor bombs that don’t need upsizing. Don’t miss the raw crudo of Skuna Bay salmon with crispy capers ($16) or the lemon oil-doused broiled langostinos.
I’m most impressed by Lago’s seafood and vegetable dishes. The chilled shrimp-stuffed squid, totano ripieno ($18), is one of the cleanest ocean bites I’ve ever encountered. The branzino livornese ($16), perfectly crisp and layered with briny, acidic goodness from olives, capers and tomatoes, couldn’t be better. And the all-veg take on papardelle ragu is so rich, I couldn’t care less about its meatlessness. This is the one small plate I wish were bigger.
That’s just a sampling of the approximately 57 dishes on Lago’s menu. It’s a good thing it’s so much fun to hang out in this spaceship, because we’re going to have come back again and again to work our way through it all.
Lago Bellagio, 702-693-8888. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5 p.m.-midnight.