Fall in Love with Italian Food at Valentino
by catherine de orio
Italian restaurants in Las Vegas are as ubiquitous as miniature Colosseum replicas at Rome’s major tourist haunts. But among those, truly exceptional dining experiences can be as elusive as finding a perfect mate. Tucked in a corner just off Venetian’s casino floor, it would be easy to pass by Valentino, but that would be a mistake—especially if a romantic date with to-die-for Italian food is what’s in order. Perhaps not as well-known as some of the big-name luminaries that have populated the Strip in the past few years, this restaurant is Vegas’s best-kept secret in Italian dining.
Bergamo, Italy–born, James Beard Foundation Award–winning Executive Chef and Partner Luciano Pellegrini began his culinary training at age 13, immediately following school with a position at Michelin-starred Locanda dell’Angelo. He moved to the States to work with Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of the iconic Valentino Santa Monica, and 28 years later he has never looked back.
Pellegrini remains true to the principle tenant of the Italian kitchen: simplicity. “We are an honest cuisine,” Pellegrini says. “We use quality ingredients and prepare them with the least amount of manipulation.” Yet somehow, even a simple plate of cold cuts is transformed into a gustatory delight: The medley of house-cured guanciale, duck prosciutto, lamb bresaola, and wild boar play amongst juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes and pillowy-soft buffalo mozzarella as a first course. Later, a dish of chanterelle agnolotti with robiola cheese fondue and freshly shaved white truffles will please even the most decadent of palates.
Simple may be the buzzword in this kitchen, but the cuisine is inventive and sophisticated. Pellegrini bluntly states there are no new dishes, but rather new interpretations on classics to modify and modernize the flavor profile. Seared Napa Valley quail is basted with a Tuscan barbecue sauce—a combination of traditional ingredients mixed with olive oil and a bit of liquid smoke. Instead of cooking it down to concentrate the flavors, he bastes the quail with the “raw” sauce, which results in a light, tangy, and ever-so-sweet glaze that marries well with the game bird’s natural flavors. The finished product is so delectable that the maître d’ suggested closing the door to the private dining room so it can be eaten the best way: right from the bone, using our hands. In true Italian fashion, here, pleasure’s pursuit trumps pomp and circumstance.
Since the restaurant is named after an infamous 1920s sex symbol, Rudolfo “The Latin Lover” Valentino, it is apropos that an equally seductive tasting menu be on offer for Valentine’s Day. Lovesick foodies should make a reservation for the two-top in the wine cellar, a welcome change from the traditional chef’s table set in close proximity (sometimes too much so, at least for amorous purposes) to the action of the kitchen. The luxurious menu incorporates the indulgent ingredients that instantly come to mind: lobster, foie gras, and caviar. He then adds some unique twists like an Ibérico de Bellota pork loin tagliata. Since only 10 percent of the porcine production is released as fresh meat, it is a rare treat on a menu. “Kobe beef has been done over and over, so I do pork,” Pellegrini says. “I use the same pig that is used for Spain’s pata negra [an acorn-eating swine that sells for approximately $100 a pound], and it eats like beef.” Much thought is put into every dish, each becoming a study in balance. The lobster medallion, sea urchin custard, watercress, and tangerine salad is an “explosion of flavors and textures that together make you say ‘Wow!’” he says. “You get richness from the lobster, creaminess from the sea urchin, and then a peppery punch from watercress rounded out by the sweet, acidic tangerine.”
Then there’s his whimsical take on a cheese course: Parmesan soufflé with gorgonzola fondue. For the sweetest finish, Valentino’s executive pastry chef, Alessandro Stoppa, created a luscious finale that melds chocolate and raspberry with homemade orange and passion fruit gelato. At first bite, the heart-shaped chocolate mousse’s liquid raspberry center oozes out. The finish: delicate garnishes of candied rose petals, raspberry marshmallows, and drops of chocolate, little touches that make for a magical meal. And whether it be in our romances or repasts, isn’t it a touch of magic that we all seek? Venetian, 702-414-3000
photography by bryan hainer; photography by jim spellman/wireimage (rivers), allen berezovsky/wireimage (saget)