Penazzi Italian Ristorante. The name says ‘Italian cuisine,’ yet it’s a cleverly concealed diamond in the rough, tucked away at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino. Its atmosphere is as intoxicating as its wonderfully authentic Italian cuisine. Their dishes range from very traditional to truly unique, and all exhibit attention to detail, and care for each ingredient. Featuring an oyster bar in front of the restaurant, a lengthy martini menu, as well as a dizzying all-Italian wine list, Penazzi is an unforgettable experience.Read More ...
Penazzi emerged on the scene two years ago this month, with head chef Effron Flores and owner Gabriele Penazzi The duo work together to create a unique menu, orchestrated to transport each diner to Italy. The able and essential tour guide for this journey is Gabriele himself; he is as much of the experience as the food itself.
Penazzi is tucked away behind the players club signup counter at Harrah’s. With Harrah’s variety of shows, including Rita Rudner, Mac King’s magic show, and the Improv Comedy Club, there’s frequent traffic through the casino, and much of it gravitates to Penazzi’s eclectic, brightly colored sign and welcoming oyster bar. There’s also a contingent of people directed to Penazzi by the local concierges.
We arrive at Penazzi on a Sunday evening, with an early reservation. The restaurant has the requisite podium in the front, to the right of the oyster bar. They are in the process of updating their décor, trying new colors and menus, to make the restaurant and dining room less dark and formal, more friendly, modern, and fun. Tables are covered in colored linen tablecloths, and appointed with full settings of silverware and glassware. The music is a familiar classic rock blend—think Boston, the Rolling Stones, and Journey—which effectively helps to mute and mask surrounding conversations. The dining room features roomy booths, as well as traditional table seating. There’s also a semi-private VIP/conference room available.
We are promptly shown to a table of our choice. Our server, Sammy, arrives and introduces himself. His charming accent gives away that he’s Italian; we learn that he hails from Venice. He brings an assortment of breads in a basket. We’re also given long, narrow plates with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a generous shaving of parmesan, and freshly cracked black pepper, all for the benefit of the delicious breads. The basket includes thickly sliced sundried tomato & olive bread, thin, cracker-like flatbread, as well as breadsticks, all of which are not only beautifully displayed, but as flavorful as they are aesthetic. Another server brings us each a bellini, a delectable combination of champagne with peach and raspberry purees.
Then, our first two courses magically appear. Each white, oval plate is accompanied by discourse that explains both the dish and ingredients. Our server, Sammy, keeps up a running commentary on our dishes and how they’re prepared. All staff at Penazzi taste and learn the ingredients for dishes, in order to converse fluently about their food. The other critical staff member is Gabriele Penazzi himself, who works the room like a host with a home full of guests. He orchestrates the staff with charisma and presence, suggesting, “Bring the digestive for the lady,” and, “You must try this; it is the nectar of love.” His melodic Italian accent makes every word sound romantic, and there’s an anecdote for everything, including world origins of dishes, wines, and aperitifs.
We begin with the Portobello Costa Smeralda, The portobello is perfect, firm but cooked, and sinfully filled with crab, topped with provolone, and placed on a pool of bechamel, then drizzled with a thick, aged balsamic. It is rich, savory, and served with a garnish of diced tomatoes and basil.
The Mozzarella in Carrozza is fried cheese, exponentially elevated to fine dining. There’s nothing but creamy cheese, sandwiched in Italian bread, then fried, and topped with a generous portion of more mozzarella. This isn’t the rubbery, bowling alley food from which nightmares come. This is seasoned, and fluffy, and served on a flavorful marinara sauce.
Our other appetizer is pure, traditional Italian: Mozzarella alla Caprese. Beautifully presented, it features alternating slices of red and yellow beefsteak tomato with buffalo mozzarella and basil leaves. Served on an asymmetrical white plate, it’s drizzled with balsamic, and served with a light salad of microgreens. It’s light, fresh, and the simple flavors dazzle.
While we’re still working on the Caprese, our next dish is placed in front of us. It is Fried Eggplant with Marinara. The eggplant is served in thin slices, fried, topped with mozzarella and parmesan, served with marinara and garnished with a salad in the center of the plate. The coating is crispy and well seasoned. Eggplant is the perfect palette for exhibiting special flavors; it's like a blank slate, well-suited for the herbs, garlic, and seasoned breadcrumbs coating it. The fried eggplant, combined with the rich marinara, is a beautiful marriage of tangy and creamy, and crunch with smooth. I’ve always thought eggplant looked unappealing, but after this dish, my husband and I are among proud converts. Eggplant need no longer be a mystery dish only ordered by vegetarians. It's delicious, and complex.
The tone of our dinner progresses from lighter to heavier as our entrees arrive. First, on a long plate resembling a gondola, we’re brought a rack of lamb dish that resembles art as much as food. The lamb is in the center of the plate, with delicately creamed spinach at one end, and ricotta ravioli with a brown demiglace sauce at the other end. Near the lamb is a tomato and basil salad, a refreshing contrast to the rich flavors surrounding it. The spinach is wilted but not nuclear—it has color, texture, and the peppery flavor of spinach, nothing like the horrified remembrances of elementary school lunches past. The ravioli is decadent, and tender. Chef Effron spends the better portion of two days creating his demiglace sauce, and the attention and effort to ensure quality are apparent. The aroma alone is enough to make this dish a winner. As for the lamb, it is tender, roasted, well seasoned, and pink. The rack is sliced into individual bones, and the pieces are easy to eat, like lamb lollipops.
Our final entrée is a pasta dish, though that hardly describes the ingredients and skill involved in preparing it. An enormous, simple white bowl is placed on our table. It’s filled with linguine in a red sauce, with shrimp, bay scallops, and lobster meat. On top rests a half of a grilled Maine lobster, as well as a large lobster claw. It’s garnished with a sprig of basil, as well as chopped parsley. The bowl is packed with seafood. It’s extravagant. We pause; this looks, feels, smells, and tastes like Italian soul food. We could be in someone’s kitchen, eating from the pot that’s been prepared over the course of a day. It’s beautiful, and aptly depicts a sentiment shared by Gabriele and Chef Effron – that Penazzi is “a labor of love.”
Just when we think there’s nothing else that can impress us further, dessert arrives. Sammy places two dishes on our table. Both dishes resemble painter’s palettes. They’re lovely, and while each has sauce, whipped cream, and drizzles of chocolate, not a single bit of either looks haphazard; it’s all been created and assembled with great care and dexterity. The gelati assortment is so refreshing; there’s a pineapple sorbet, a champagne gelato, and a raspberry sorbet. Gabriele, ever the wonderful host, drizzles a walnut liqueur on the champagne gelato. It changes the texture, making it delightfully soft and gelatinous. The plate is garnished with fresh fruit, chocolate sauce, and a raspberry coulis, artfully plated.
Our second dessert is Tre Cioccolate, and it’s composed of chocolate cake soaked in Sambuca, as well as a cannoli filled with sweet citrus mascarpone, and (my favorite), a chocolate pistachio truffle, topped with pistachio gelato. Sugar shock may be imminent, but I’ll happily accept my fate.
Penazzi Italian Ristorante is a new breed of restaurant. An owner who cares, communicating with a talented chef to respectfully execute time-honored family recipes, makes for an experience that is so much more than memorable. The food is outstanding, and the service unparalleled. I can make many recommendations, but Gabriele himself says it more eloquently. What does he want diners to do when they come to Penazzi? “Have fun.”
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