Il Mulino, located at the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace, is a rare treat in a city full of excellent restaurants. The Las Vegas branch of this popular New York-based restaurant group specializes in three things: 1) the best available ingredients; 2) service; and 3) the cuisine of Northern Italy.
While Campania is Italian cuisine for many Americans, the region of Northern Italy—particularly Piedmont—is for me the most interesting. Rich white sauces, truffles and wild game highlight Piedmont's cuisine. Best of all, they're crazy about hors d'oeuvres in Piedmont and so are the chefs at Il Mulino.
I enjoy the fact that all I do is describe restaurants. I do not have to rate them by handing out five stars, three diamonds, two forks, or twenty titanium truffles. But if I did, I would hand Il Mulino the whole Lucky Charms assortment including "two thumbs up."
Walking into Il Mulino, you'd think you were entering a Milan ristorante. A window full of wine, cheese, and delicacies hints at the glories within. A menu on a stand beckons.
Once inside, prepare to eat—immediately.
Before your waiter even introduces himself, a cheese steward will deposit a generous helping of Grana Padano on your plate. This grainy, parmesan-like cheese is used heavily in the menu and the specials. Good.
Before you can say, "thanks for the cheese," bruschetta with tomato and basil and a large appetizer will be brought to the table to share. Then, different Italian breads will arrive—garlic bread, country bread, and focaccia. All of this happens within 30 seconds of being seated. You walk into the restaurant (minding your own business) and whammo—you're sitting with multiple dishes of excellent food in front of you, wondering how it happened.
The day we ate at Il Mulino, the "menu nosh" was lightly-fried zucchini marinated in extra virgin olive oil and peppers. The zucchini was dusted in flour, fried in extra virgin olive oil, then drained, seasoned and marinated with more oil. The generous portion foreshadowed things to come. This may be "cucina raffinata" but the portions are more like "Nonna Pomposelli's." (If you didn't have a Grandma Pomposelli growing up, you'll have to use your imagination.)
The fried zucchini, incidentally, was delightful, with a peppery finish. I had mine over the medley of breads. The olive oil used here is excellent.
While Nina and I snacked on zucchini, our waiter read off the specials of the day. Il Mulino offers more specials than most restaurants, because the dishes are prepared based on what's freshest.
The menu at Il Mulino contains dozens of tempting dishes. The daily specials are equally impressive. Guests will need a prodigious memory to recall all the options. I had trouble, even taking notes.
The specials that day included Buffalo mozzarella Caprese salad; Eggplant Rollatini with a Vodka Sauce and Fontina; Blue Point Oysters on the Half Shell; Tuna Carpaccio; Ravioli with Porcini Mushrooms in a white champagne sauce with truffles (also part of a Pasta Trio); Orichetti and Broccoli Rabe; Veal Milanese topped with a sauté of arugula with extra virgin olive oil and butter; Paranzino Stuffed with Garlic; and Lobster Out of the Shell over angel hair pasta.
There was more, but I developed writer’s cramp. Besides, they had me at “champagne sauce with truffles.” Nina and I selected an assortment of dishes and ordered a Dolcetto D’alba from Il Mulino’s impressive wine list. And only then did we find time to take in the restaurant.
Il Mulino sports dark wood tones and wrought iron. An impressive side board allows the waiter to finish several dishes in the main dining room before presentation. The waiters themselves are smartly dressed in tuxedos, and work the tables two and three at a time.
The weather was still a bit chilly when we dined at Il Mulino, but if it had been ten degrees warmer, we would have opted for the beautiful patio. Even inside, Il Mulino's top-floor location offers a nice view northward up the Strip, with views of the Venetian all the way up to the Stratosphere.
We started with the Caprese Salad, which was finished with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The buffalo mozzarella was silky smooth and topped with sun dried tomatoes—a perfect spring dish. A fire-roasted red pepper topped with Sicilian capers tied the dish together.
Nina’s Seafood Risotto with porcini mushrooms was excellent. I would have tried more of it, but she shot me a look of “make another move toward my risotto, and I’ll stab you with this fork.” OK, I exaggerate, but this risotto satisfied. Porcini mushrooms dominated the flavor. A subtle garlic finish tied the rice and langoustine together. The seafood/mushroom stock was augmented with white wine, and tender peas balanced the color of the dish.
Next came the pasta. We both ordered the Pasta Trio special. Green, red, and white sauces accompanied three of our favorite pastas: gnocchi, pappardelli, and ravioli. The ravioli instantly became one of my top-ten meals. The powerful aroma of truffles smacked the olfactory senses from across the room (several other guests had the ravioli special that night; the whole restaurant was bathed in a truffle aroma).
We both saved the ravioli for last. I started with the Pappardelli with Sausage Ragu. All pasta at Il Mulino is handmade. The pappardelli were perfectly al dente, with just enough sauce to coat the pasta.
The Gnocchi with Pesto made me thankful that basil is once again in season. The basil was nearly as aromatic as the truffles. This was a classic dish with heaps of toasted pine nuts and garlic. After being tossed with the pesto, the pillowy gnocchi was topped with a splash of extra virgin olive oil.
The Ravioli with Porcini Mushrooms in a white champagne sauce with truffles was the best dish of the night. Next time someone asks me why I spend so much money on truffles every winter, I’ll simply point them in the direction of Il Mulino and hope this dish is one of the specials.
This is what truffles are all about. The porcini-stuffed ravioli were the foundation for the creamy champagne-truffle sauce. The porcini gave the dish that extra mushroom kick, and the sauce was so good we asked for more bread to sop up every last bit. The truffle aroma hung in the air and clung to the palate. This is a dish I’ll be returning for again and again.
In retrospect, I would have eschewed the other two pastas and stuck with the truffle ravioli—not because there was anything at all wrong with the other pastas, but because the ravioli was simply that good.
Next came the primi course. We were both fairly stuffed after all that pasta, but we kept on, knowing that there was more to come. We both picked selections made famous in Milan. Nina ordered the Osso Buco and I went for the Veal Milanese.
A woman after my own heart, Nina started by scooping the marrow out of the veal shanks. Bone marrow on toast is part of my “death row meal.” Nina shared, which was even nicer. The veal shanks were braised low and slow. The resulting brown sauce was rich and tender, and the meat was so tender it yielded to a spoon. The dish was served with aromatic spinach. After the rich pasta dishes, a little bit of very flavorful meat was an excellent choice to round out the meal.
My veal, however, was as big as the plate it was served on. A full pound of veal cutlet, pounded to about a quarter-inch thick, breaded and fried in (what else?) extra virgin olive oil. The cutlet hung off the plate and was topped with lightly sautéed arugula, tomato, and onion. The veal was tender and flavorful.
At this point I wanted to cop out (as I usually do) and not have any dessert. My friends warned me this would be a grave mistake, because some of Il Mulino’s best dishes are on the dessert menu.
Soldiering on, Nina and I were very thankful Il Mulino offers a tasting platter of dolci (sweets). They also do a wonderful fruit dish topped with Grand Marnier. We tried both. We also sampled their homemade limoncello and their flavored grappa.
Let’s start with the dolci. Their Tiramisu was light as a feather, and bursting with coffee flavor. Their Flourless Chocolate Cake was as dense as the tiramisu is light. The cake packed an intense chocolate flavor and aroma. I wouldn’t mind a gluten-free diet if this was on the menu regularly. Finally the Zabaglione was warm and smelling of marsala. This custard was topped with fresh berries. The sweets of Italy are second to none, as this trio exemplified.
Il Mulino’s homemade limoncello was an excellent digestif after a very large meal. The lemony liqueur was smooth and fresh tasting.
Nina had the fruit. Our water prepared the dish tableside, skillfully slicing orange, berries, and kiwis. He placed them artfully on a platter and doused the mixture with a generous pour of Grand Marnier. We enjoyed the fruit with some of Il Mulino’s signature grappa. Il Mulino imports their grappa then flavors it in house. The pear grappa was smooth to the point of being velvety. Small-batch grappa is enjoying a renaissance and this will give guests an idea about what all the fuss is about.
Gino and Fernando Masci started the first Il Mulino in Greenwich Village in New York City because the neighborhood reminded them of their native Abruzzi. The restaurant became an instant classic and is now considered a required stop for any devotee of Italian cuisine. The Mascis have opened nine more branches including this one at the Forum Shops. Il Mulino is simply a must-visit for anyone who loves fine dining. This is the place for that special night out.