by John Curtas | December 1, 2011 | Food & Drink
La Pomme Verte is a delectable holiday dessert.
Table at Circo with a view of the Bellagio fountains and Paris’s Eiffel Tower
The bar area at Circo
Tables at Le Cirque live up to the restaurant’s name.
Bartender Gene Andrade pours a festive Veuve framboise cocktail
Circo’s delectable soufflé
Circo chef Michael Vitangeli with spaghetti with chunks of sweet Maine lobster
The Bellagio Conservatory during Christmas
The iconic Bellagio fountains play Christmas music in December
|Circo’s Champagne raspberry zabaione is a holiday favorite|
|Langoustines with osetra caviar and apple-vodka geleé at Le Cirque|
With the Bellagio fountains dancing to hits like “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Santa Baby” like an only-in-Las Vegas winter wonderland greeting, it’s not surprising that the famous resort is considered one of the most inviting during the month of December. Under the famed glass ceiling, families meet for a stroll through the holiday-themed conservatory before having a memorable meal together at what have become the most traditional spots in town: the Maccioni family’s Le Cirque and Circo.
The homey feel that seems tailored to family time around the holidays was planned to perfection since the very beginning. When Sirio Maccioni and his sons, Mario, Marco, and Mauro, took Steve Wynn up on his offer to open at Bellagio in 1998, they chose the opposite route of other celebrity chefs.
Instead of exaggerated, overblown versions of the restaurants that made them famous, they went small. In the case of Le Cirque, they asked hospitality designer Adam Tihany to create a tranquil jewel box amidst the casino cacophony. With Circo, they wanted it to be festive and fun, but on a personal scale, and nothing like the boisterous behemoths that then and now characterize many a Strip dining room. What Tihany dialed up were two of his greatest designs ever: two restaurants that remain, 13 years later, the most convivial places in Las Vegas to celebrate the holidays... or any occasion.
You might say Circo and Le Cirque are two shows under the same big top. A large kitchen connects them, with the Italian half sitting side by side with the slightly smaller French batterie de cuisine. Peeking in during the dinner rush can be a feast for the senses, with the sights and smells of world-class food blurring with the studied freneticism of cooks and waitstaff performing at full bore—all of it spiced with verbal blizzards of Italian, Spanish, and French. Each side has its own rhythms and commanders, and each brings forth act after act of food as delectable spectacle, all punctuated by two of the best service staffs in the business, and all leading up to a crescendo of desserts.
As tremendous as the food is in both restaurants, they sparkle during the holidays (and the other 11 months of the year), for a very special but subtle reason: The staffs at both have remained almost constant since these places opened—an unheard-of level of loyalty and consistency in the restaurant world. At Le Cirque and Circo, you always feel like a party is going on, or about to start, and that everyone from the maître d’ to the busboys are there to make your meal a celebration of fine food and holidays, no matter the day.
“It’s our most exciting time of the year,” says Maccioni, scion and oldest son Mario, of Osteria del Circo’s holiday traditions. “We always close for the first week in December because Vegas, unlike New York, is dead right after Thanksgiving. Then the big casino players start getting invited for the holidays, and by December 20, we’re working harder than ever.” Circo, the lighter and brighter of the Maccioni family’s two Bellagio restaurants, makes holiday decorations almost superfluous, but present they are as ornaments and garlands punctuate the festive atmosphere that also offers prime viewing of the Bellagio’s famed fountains.
Table setting at Le Cirque
The less formal of the two restaurants, Circo’s kitchen cartwheels are a bit more crowd-pleasing but no less fun, turning out highly regarded dishes inspired by the Tuscan heritage of Egidiana, Sirio Maccioni’s wife. Executive chef Michael Vitangeli inherited this kitchen last year from a long line of superb Italian chefs, and he keeps it humming along like a well-tuned Ferrari.
The pastas are justifiably famous and, in keeping with Italian tradition, seafood starches take center stage at holiday time. Whether it’s risotto sette mare or spaghetti con aragosta, you can be sure your impeccably cooked rice will be studded with frutti del mare, and your thick, house-made spaghetti will be over-the-top delicious, enhanced by chunks of sweet Maine lobster bathed in a piquant and sweet tomato-brandy sauce. For Christmas dinner, Vitangeli will roast a whole suckling pig and serve it with an apple and chestnut purée, roasted beets, and guanciale, the unsmoked pig’s-jowl bacon so prized by connoisseurs.
One amateur move while dining here during the holidays: not saving room for dessert. At Circo on Christmas Day, pastry chef Philippe Angibeau creates a classic bûche de Noel for feasting families—Genoise cake rolled and frosted with chocolate buttercream to resemble a log ready for the fire festival of the winter solstice. Like all of Circo’s desserts, it’s both dazzling and deeply satisfying.
Le Cirque du Gourmet
It is the spectacle of Le Cirque, both in the design and on the plates, that makes it such a tough ticket during the holidays. Bold colors and circus motifs predominate—the restaurant is resplendent in dark woods, reds, muted yellows, and purples, and during the holiday season, it nearly bursts at the seams with Christmas trees, ornaments, and garlands aplenty for the crowds that start building right around mid-December.
“Everyone has higher expectations then,” says Ivo Angelov, general manager of Le Cirque since 2008. “There are white truffles galore, and some of our best customers from Asia come with entire families of dozens of people.” One such family, the Kweks of Singapore finance-dynasty fame, buys out Le Cirque for one night every holiday season, bringing up to 50 family members in for the best of executive chef Gregory Pugin’s luxurious French creations, such as sautéed foie gras with white chocolate and raisin brioche, langoustines with osetra caviar and apple-vodka gelée, or the impossibly rich (and intriguing) oxtail bucatini timbale with oxtail daube sauce.
This year on Christmas Day, the chef has put together a tasting menu for the senses: Options include sautéed foie gras with white chocolate and raisin brioche, butter-poached Maine lobster, and honey-glazed Barbary duck magret. An additional premium wine pairing is also offered, giving guests a luxurious guided tour through Le Cirque’s list of more than 900 international wines from France’s most renowned regions. Complete the meal with the extravagant chocolate towers for which Le Cirque has been famous for decades, and a blizzard of pastry chef Philippe Angibeau’s over-the-top desserts. But whether it’s an avant-garde tiramisu, a raspberry zabaglione, or textbook-perfect soufflés, there’s no denying their eye-popping appeal and drop-dead deliciousness—everything right at home among the festive surroundings.
photographs by bryan hainer (bar area, soufflé, cirque table, langoustines, vitangeli, andrade); courtesy of bell agio (conservatory, fountains); beverly poppe (dessert, table, dish, table)