Many years ago, a curious journalist asked Italian movie goddess Sophia Loren how she managed to get such generous female curves. She pluckily retorted, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” So it was with this quote in mind, I entered CARNEVINO, an Italian-inspired steakhouse at the Palazzo in Las Vegas. While I may not have the assets of Loren, I do share one thing: my curves were largely due to spaghetti as well as my carnivorous passion for beef.
CARNEVINO is the enterprise of culinary and business titans Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich; one a celeb chef whose scorpacciata manifesto ensures gastronomic ecstasy and the other a celebrated restaurateur and son of culinary royalty Lidia Bastianich. Together, Batali and Bastianich, known as B&B Hospitality Group, have established some of the country’s most lauded restaurants including New York’s Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca and Las Vegas’ CARNEVINO Italian Steakhouse.
CARNEVINO is tucked down a hallway in the Italian themed hotel Palazzo so there is no glaring design departure between the hotel and restaurant. The hostess area has an understated elegance, filled with rich wood juxtaposed against gold-toned Venetian plastered walls that outline an imposing archway which resembles that of many Italian manors. Guests are greeted promptly and warmly by the hostess but often, too, by GM Richard Douglas or manager Erica Killam.
CARNEVINO patrons first pass by the bar on the way to one of the several dining rooms. One of the first remarkable features is the vaulted coffered ceiling easily extending 20 feet.
The bar features beautifully lit glass spirit shelves, a fine wood bar, and welcoming short cocktail tables. In classic form, there is a flat-screened TV facing the three stone archways that opens a portion of the bar to the casino floor and separates itself by wood balustrades. The TV allows the brisk lunch crowd to rest or catch up on the Arsenal vs. Manchester game.
However, our dinner destination is the primary dining room, but we couldn't help but notice the imposing statue at the entry. It features a life-sized bronze of the venerated Bodacious, a bull so fierce on the rodeo circuit that he was actually retired and put to stud (kept for breeding purposes) at an early age. In retrospect, we realized that Bodacious set the metaphorical tone for the helluva thrilling ride were about to embark upon at CARNEVINO.
Beyond the classically outfitted wait staff with oversized, starched white aprons, the main dining area featured rich wood flooring, stone medallions, mammoth ornate wood doors and oversized antique European sideboards topped with glass domed cheese trays. CARNEVINO's warm tone is further set by luminous lighting and several oversized tapestry draped windows that allow patrons beautiful views and cascading late afternoon sunlight.
Our table features crisp white linen with sumptuous and welcoming armless leather chairs that afford us a spacious vantage of the villa. We are met with congenial staff offering us both a wine list and our preference of water. CARNEVINO is one of the few restaurants on the Strip that owns a Natura machine, an eco-friendly purification system that provides chilled sparkling and still water. CARNEVINO, as well as all of the B&B restaurants, is very much into sustainability and puts their money where their mouth is by using energy efficient lighting to refining the kitchen machine oils which are made into the soap in the guest restrooms. In addition, they established a flourishing farmer's market the result of sourcing locally grown agriculture.
With sufficient time to settle in, our waiter Mike Stephensen approaches our table to welcome us to CARNEVINO. As he presents the menu and an addendum to the menu that couldn't fit, he acknowledges the many features of the day that change based on availability. Even though CARNEVINO's menus are oversized, three-quarters of it features an impressive global wine and champagne list. The list is an oenologist’s playground. After an extensive search, I turn to one of CARNEVINO's three sommeliers, Phoenix Marchin, to help me find a wine that would pair well with my dining experience. She deftly makes recommendations given our primary beef menu selections. So we start our epicurean journey with Bastianich's own 2008 Vespa Bianco Fruili to accompany the grilled octopus antipasti.
CARNEVINO’s grilled octopus is befitting of King Triton. The thick tentacle was slowly braised at low temperatures in a cork-strewn white wine and chili flake fluid that imparts a delicate crispness while allowing the meat to soften. The octopus is then grilled and dressed simply with pickled vegetables, homemade limoncello vinaigrette and presented with gorgeous fresh radish greens. From what we’ve read, many patrons come to CARNEVINO solely for the grilled octopus.
Under the direction of Executive Chef Nicole Brisson, a self-proclaimed “do it myself” kind of girl, she has taken the lead that former Executive Chef Zack Allen established before his recent departure to open CARNEVINO in Singapore. Brisson’s “take the reign” style with the directive that’s expected by Batali creates an ethos that other establishing restaurants try to reach but fall short: Take magnificent seasonal products and showcase their strengths with only minimal preparation; Brisson and her team delivers this dead-on.
To whet our appetite even more, Chef Brisson sent small fried Parmesan crusted orbs along with warm handmade ciabbata rolls topped with a delicate smattering of rosemary, CARNEVINO's handcrafted salt-free butter and lardo, the establishment's recommended accompaniment to their breads and is actually lower in fat and cholesterol than butter. It’s a creamy white spread with a decadently rich texture peppered with tiny beads of pork fatback that imparts a slightly salty but robust flavor that couples with the bread like Romeo to Juliet.
A girl that loves beef as much as I do requires eating it in its near purest form, which is easy when the restaurant's provisions on choosing its meats are sans anything artificial, so of course I gravitated to the Carne Cruda Alla Piemontese (steak tartare). Featuring chopped filet combined with shallots, capers, chives, lemon and a little mustard, the mixture is then gently wrapped with a shaved trumpet mushroom and topped with smaller mushrooms. Served with crusty crostini, the tartare delivers a powerful punch of dense beef flavor followed by citrus.
Two pasta dishes served as the bridge between antipasti and entrée: Spaghetti al Frutti di Mare and Beef Cheek Ravioli in a butter sauce. The frutti di mare contained briny shrimp, lobster, clam and calamari atop a hearty but manageable portion of freshly made spaghetti and contained a little sparkle of spice. The ravioli is presented like the backs of four envelopes slightly staggered. They rest in a little bath of a delicate butter sauce and just before being served drizzled with balsamic vinegar. The contrast between the rich butter and the acidity of the vinegar enhanced the ravioli's finely textured almost veal tasting envelopes.
During intermission, Stephensen offers us warm, damp lemon scented towels with an artfully tucked lemon slice with which to cleanse our fingers before our entree.
Part of the fine dining experience is the appropriate amount of time to enjoy the experience without languishing. The wait staff pace themselves to be attentive without being obsequious. Their table team was striking in the sense they were very congenial and clearly enjoyed their careers and were eager to answer any culinary question without making one feel inadequate.
Before getting to the main entree, which is the “La Fiorentina” (classic Florentine porterhouse for two), our decanted Barbaresco is served. Our sommelier made several recommendations and we chose for the 1998 Ada Nada “Valeirano” that was first fermented in stainless steel followed by oak casts. It's likely one of the reasons that it needs a bit to decant. The flavor was very pleasing and full-bodied wine with rich accents of plum even though the wine didn’t have sufficient time to breath.
When the piéce de résistance arrives at our table, it’s accompanied with a fair amount of pageantry and so we sat forward to enjoy the theatre before us. Two attendants push out a butcher’s table to our side to foreshadow what’s in store while our waiter artfully presents the huge hunk of flesh then carves it to our delight. The accompaniments of mascarpone and guanciale mashed potatoes topped with a quail egg or seared foie gras with Barolo is also placed on the table. The potatoes were silken and chalked full with creaminess. The foie gras is mouthgasmic, offering the classic first bite resistance that precedes the delicious melt-in-your-mouth cascade of rich flavor.
And the beef? Oh the beef... exquisite. The slight crust the result of being brushed with butter then “washed” with bouquet garni and salt and then seared at 1900°F and kissed with a little grape oil. Every morsel is tender without losing any body which possesses a robust and minerally flavor that clearly spoke of the meat's pedigree. Interestingly, its purity didn't result in any bloated feeling, just a sated and gleeful gut.
What's striking about CARNEVINO is that they have perfected the art of extended dry aging. While the industry standard for dry aging is 30 to 40 days, CARNEVINO can and does dry age over a year, as is the case with their Riserva. The Riserva is suggested for true beef connoisseurs because the beef heralds its arrival with a rich mineral taste and dense, musky notes of blue cheese.
Few restaurants take the time that’s required sourcing the cattle and working cooperatively with the ranch. By doing so, both the ranchers and CARNEVINO can work cohesively to achieve its set standards like to ensure the livestock is treated humanely and their feed is conducive to create the ideal prime meat CARNEVINO serves to its guest. Chef Brisson works with Adam Perry Lang, a meat consultant who can tell with great accuracy the flavor profile of a steer while still in adolescence. Consequently, CARNEVINO works with smaller ranchers in Utah and Nebraska for the 5,000 to 10,000 lbs of beef they receive weekly. Of that yield, every loin is inspected by Brisson, who then chooses those for dry aging. It's an expensive and time consuming effort but one that cannot be cheated. This is one the reasons why CARNEVINO was just named one of the world's top steakhouses by the arbiters of all things lux, Goyot.
CARNEVINO isn't just a steakhouse; they're a culinary good neighbor that also supports the efforts of local agriculture. Pastry Chef Doug Taylor, who is also an agriculture instructor with Nevada's Cooperative Extension, is known for jumping in his car to embark on a treasure hunt to find local farmers that care as much for their crops as CARNEVINO cares for their patrons—and planet. Taylor's found so many local resources and provided them tutelage that their crops have blossomed so much that the excess is sold at the local Farmer's Market.
There is so much to say about CARENEVINO and we didn't even get to the desserts—a true gelati trio of pistachio, chocolate and espresso along with an espresso panna cotta topped with butterscotch sauce and roasted almonds and bolstered by a 1995 Niepoort “Colheita” Porto. But that still wasn't the sweetest part of our visit.
Chef Brisson takes us on an impromptu tour of the immaculate kitchen that ran like a Grand Prix Ferrari. Everything about CARNEVINO is impressive and most especially the coolers containing the amazing charcuterie including sopressata, pancetta and salumi.
CARNEVINO may be a contraction of the Italian words for meat and wine but calling CARNEVINO a steakhouse is akin to referring to Bodacious as just a bull or a Stradivarius as just a violin. The restaurant and its expert staff deserve every accolade they've earned. And I'm pretty certain that if Sophia Loren had decided for CARENEVINO over her pasta, she'd have single handedly brought the Roman Empire back to its zenith much like B&B have done with CARNEVINO.