No restaurant can touch Rao’s when it comes to exclusivity. At The French Laundry, people call two months to the day to have any hope of snagging a reservation at Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley restaurant. At the famed Italian restaurant in Harlem – founded by Charles Rao in 1896 – phone reservations are virtually impossible, and unless you’re a high-profile New Yorker with a standing reservation like Woody Allen or Rudolph Giuliani, you’re unlikely to eat there. In an effort to make the family’s food more accessible, Charles Rao’s descendants opened a restaurant called Baldoria in Midtown, and in late 2007, Frank Pellegrino, Jr. and Ron Straci opened a much larger version of the original in Caesars Palace, which is where our hosts began our two-day culinary tour of the casino. No restaurant can live up to a 112-year-old legend, but Rao’s offered plenty of high points.
The Caesars Palace spin-off is a replica of the Harlem original, down to the red exterior and signed celebrity photos on the wall. Frank, Jr.’s wife Carla is the Executive Chef, entrusted with recreating treasured family classics. The original Rao’s dispensed with minutiae like credit cards and menus. Thankfully, those options are available in Vegas.
We started with the Antipasto della Casa for two ($29), a massive plate of silky prosciutto di Parma, strips of roasted red bell pepper tossed with pine nuts, Gaeta olives, buffalo Mozzarella layered with sliced tomatoes, chunks of Grana Padano and Gorgonzola, all plated on a bed of arugula.
Frank, Jr. touted his family’s pan-seared octopus, with good reason. He plated tender dime-sized slivers with quarter-sized potatoes and lima beans. Dressed with a little olive oil and chopped parsley, this was a simple but satisfying starter.
Vongole Oreganate ($16) were supple Little Neck clams crusted with golden, oil-bathed breadcrumbs.
Growing up in New Jersey, my family ate “red sauce” Italian food at least once a week, and my favorite dish usually involved meatballs. I was most excited to try Le Polpette di Rao’s ($13), meatballs bathed in tomato sauce. Unfortunately, the oversized meatballs were dense, and the sauce was thin.
Frank, Jr. had us try a sampler of signature pastas and grains. Pennette alla Vodka was excellent, pasta in a light vodka-cream sauce, tossed with diced pancetta. Risotto was also expertly prepared, tossed with thin-shaved asparagus. Conchiglie al Pomodoro e Ricotta – shell pasta with fresh ricotta cheese and marinara sauce – was the least satisfying option, the pasta too firm and the flavor muddled.
The food was solid but not great until Carla Pellegrino took the meal to another level with her entrée sampler. I gladly would have eaten a full plate of every dish my plate. Bistecca alla Pizzaiola ($48 for a full order) featured slices of succulent pan-seared Prime shell steak topped with sautéed tomato strips. It was a shame we only got one jumbo shrimp apiece. Gamberoni in Umido ($34) were sweet and supple, lavished in lemon, butter and white wine. I’m always skeptical of restaurants that anoint their dishes “famous,” but in the case of Uncle Vincent’s Famous Lemon Chicken ($24), it’s justified. The charbroiled chicken was served in Uncle Vincent’s tangy lemon sauce and the skin had a great char. Finally, the best dish was Costoletta di Vitello in Agrodolce ($48), juicy pan-seared veal topped with sautéed hot and sweet cherry peppers.
On the side, we received a generous helping of Piselli & Prosciutto ($11), sweet baby peas sautéed with diced Prosciutto di Parma and white onions.
We were in a rush to make it to a show, so we had to devour our entrées and skip dessert, but considering how the dishes kept improving during the course of our meal, dessert probably would have been rewarding. If you’re looking for a soulful Italian restaurant in Las Vegas, Rao’s is a good option.
Note: This meal was part of a media trip hosted by Caesars Palace for Los Angeles food writers.