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February 25, 2010


Carnage Dominic Armato

Up front, I'm not the guy to ask about steakhouses. I've always had a hard time getting excited about them. Not that I don't love a good steak, I absolutely do. But steakhouses generally don't come cheap, and if I'm going to spend a lot of money, I don't want a pretty good steak. I want an exceptional steak. Which means I'm going to spend a LOT of money. And if I'm going to spend a LOT of money, I have a hard time spending it on just a steak when there are so many other ways I could stuff my face with that amount of dough. And I don't mean to suggest that it isn't worth it. It's just that on the occasions when I'm going to drop a bundle, I personally find it tough to go for the chunk of beef when I could do an inventive multicourse tasting menu instead. I do choose the former. Just not very often.

Octopus with Citrus and ChilesDominic Armato

One of my traveling companions for this last trip to Vegas, however, is exactly the opposite. It's not that he doesn't enjoy an army of small, creative plates from time to time. But given the choice, he's almost always going to go for the steak. Heck, even the cooking is optional, as far as he's concerned. So after enduring Raku and hitting the middle ground at Fleur de Lys, for our last night I figured he deserved someplace where he could get a big ol' chunk of beef. But while it'd be nice to pretend I was making some kind of big concession, the truth is that when my steak can be prefaced by some spectacular pasta... well... let's just say that my motives weren't entirely altruistic.

It's starting to look as though a steakhouse is a celebrity chef Las Vegas outpost prerequisite, and Carnevino is Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's entry into the genre. Unlike a lot of celebrity chefs' empires, however, Batali and Bastianich's seems to be doing a mighty fine job of maintaining excellence even at its farthest reaches. If Babbo is Rome, it doesn't appear they'll be ceding Vegas to the Visigoths anytime soon. The general in charge of this particular outpost is longtime Batali veteran Zach Allen, and he puts the Batali spin on the steakhouse trope with a menu that's actually longer on pastas than it is on steaks. In fact, though the steaks are king, it almost strikes me as misleading to label Carnevino a steakhouse. Rather, it's an Italian restaurant where you can get some pretty fantastic beef. But we'll get to that.

Affettati Misti with Hot Peppers, Jamon Iberico de Bellota, Prosciutto di Parma with Pear Dominic Armato

We got off on the right foot, as bread service arrived accompanied by lardo. Yes, at Carnevino the first thing to hit your table is a generously-sized ceramic pot of creamy, spreadable, salty, cured pork fat. Why I was the table's only taker, I'll never understand, but I found it difficult to complain. I suppose this kind of excess either appeals to you or it doesn't. Anybody who reads here regularly knows on which side of the fence I fall. Our first dish proper was an absolutely killer rendition of grilled octopus, with fresh citrus, chiles and mint. The flavors were bright and fresh and absolutely explosive and, most importantly, only served to enhance the main event, which achieved that elusive fusion of density and tenderness that heralds perfectly prepared octopus. Large, charred chunks sat atop a slice of what I can best describe as an octopus sausage -- all of the tenderness without the char, and a lovely little bed for the rest of the beast above. The dish was really beautiful. It hit every note, it sang loud and clear, it was one of the best octopus dishes I've encountered.

Bucatini all'AmatricianaDominic Armato

We're all rather fond of charcuterie, and everybody found a favorite for the next round of dishes. To my right, thinly sliced prosciutto di parma with sliced pear. To my left, jamon iberico de bellota -- unadorned because, really, what do you do to improve upon that? And for me, the affetati misti, a mix of assorted cuts of cured pork with a trio of hot peppers to accompany -- a charred shishito, a pickled red pepper stuffed with some manner of cheese, and a sweet and hot pepper relish. My compatriots' plates were simply a matter of good sourcing, and unsurprisingly, they delivered. Mine was prepared in-house, and while I would have preferred a little more of each -- I felt as though the tastes were too fleeting for me to get a really good sense of them -- I was impressed by the restraint exercised in their creation. They were tender and full-flavored and tasted of the meat, not of the cure.

Orechiette with SausageDominic Armato

After that, it was on to a round of pastas, and before I get into the specifics, there are a few generalities that I just have to point out. First, I could easily come back, order three or four pastas, and walk out a very happy man. They're sized in such a manner that they could be part of a large multicourse tasting menu, though that isn't the intention. Rather they're true primi, large enough that you have enough to dig into, but small enough that they leave you ready for a meat course. I'm endlessly frustrated by the oversizing of pasta dishes in the States, and it's so wonderful to see them done like this. Second, across the three we sampled, it's immediately evident Batali practices what he preaches (and what any Italian knows). It's not about the sauce. It's about the pasta. And when I say these pastas were stunning, I'm speaking as much if not more of the flavor and construction of the noodles themselves than I am of the dishes as a whole. It's a concept you try to explain to people, and when you taste pastas like these, you know that's all they need to do to understand.

Ravioli di StracottoDominic Armato

We had a Bucatini all'Amatriciana, perfect tomatoes bolstered by cured pork fat and brought to life with just the right amount of heat. We had the orechiette with sweet sausage and broccoli rabe, which played almost like a lively Bolognese with a bit of green, and nowhere was the quality of the pasta more evident than in those perfect, nubby, dense little ears. My favorite of the three on the basis of that pasta's texture. Which is saying something, since my dish was Ravioli di Stracotto, bathed in a duck liver sauce and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Even here, with such bold and decadent accompaniments, the pasta is what shone -- just as it should be. It was about this time that I wondered if it was too late to call off the steak and order two more pasta dishes.

La FiorentinaDominic Armato

Thankfully, it was, because the steak floored me. Carnevino touts what they call "BBL Beef", a sort of primer-than-prime that's aged for an absurd amount of time -- roughly two months standard, I believe, with some special selections that had been chilling since April (that'd be nine months, in case this text has been separated from its date). It's also absurdly expensive. Our Bistecca Fiorentina for two clocked in at $70 per person, and this was not the gargantuan brontosaurus slab that usually seems to be the case for anything other than a filet. But rubbed with a little salt, pepper and rosemary, charred on the outside and cooked to medium rare in the center and sliced tableside before being drizzled with a premium olive oil and sprinkled with a final shot of coarse salt, I found myself unable to complain about price performance. When steak aficionados talk about aged beef's aromatics and undertones with the same kind of language usually reserved for hardcore wine discussion, it's not lip service. There's fig in there, damnit. And you'd swear that a hint of blue cheese was somehow involved in its preparation (it wasn't). An absolutely stunning piece of beef. There are a number of sauces that you can choose to accompany it, and I'm generally much more open to premuim steak adornment than the typical hardcore food nerd, but this is one place where all I can say is don't you dare.

SorbettiDominic Armato

There's a full list of desserts, of course, but anything complicated was just going to ruin a perfect meal at that point. Better to keep things simple with a trio of excellent sorbetti -- blood orange, pear and apple, I believe -- smooth and creamy and perfectly refreshing. Reflecting on the meal a month later, really, I can't rave enough. Admittedly, this was a steakhouse built for me. But still, it exceeded my high expectations in every possible way. We sat digesting and let a good four or five songs from Abbey Road play before we finally got up and trundled off. This is a steakhouse that has turned my Vegas planning upside down. I'm usually trying to figure out how to avoid steakhouses. Yeah, I know it's Vegas, but I've always wanted to do something more interesting. Now, despite a hit list as long as my forearm, I can't avoid going back. And I'm pretty much okay with this.

Palazzo Hotel
3325 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Mon - Sun5:00 PM - 11:00 PM


Holy crap, Dom! I'm in recovery from compulsive overeating and this review made me think about falling off the wagon. I won't, but still.

Finally! I've been eagerly awaiting this post and I'm not at all disappointed. Our anniversary night reservations at Carnevino are in place... now all I have to do is be patient for the next 3 weeks to pass quickly. Now the question is how do I avoid ordering enough food for 5 meals? It seems like I'm going to want the entire menu.

It's amazing - this post managed to (1) make me acutely aware of my burgeoning hunger, and (2) strengthen my resolve against vending machines and so I can enjoy the pork I've got marinading in my fridge at home.

Not that I'd complain, but... Jamon Iberico at an Italian restaurant? Isn't there some sort of law against that?

Nah, salt cured pork has been an export of both countries since the Romans colonized both. Gotta figure there is some sort of intramural exception.

Why no price total? Or is that gauche?

From your much-appreciated $70 clue, I'm guessing counterintuitively $175 for 1 minus drink etc etc.

It would be nice to know. And Colichio blurted about his $175 steak dinner to some magazine.

Did I just out my "guess"?

No reason, bryanD. I generally don't get into price too much. It's not a matter of philosophy or appropriateness or anything like that. I'm not super price-conscious when I eat, so I'm not super price-conscious when I write. Unless there's something unusually notable in one direction or the other. And a $140 steak for two qualifies, I think :-)

As for total cost, I don't recall. Their prices are posted online, so... antipasto, a little cured meat, a pasta, the steak, a dessert... you can do the math.

Two of my favorite things ever: Oriechiette and Florentine steak in the same meal. I hate you.

In all seriousness though, this isn't so much a steak house as a Tuscan meatery. Sure, steak is the focus, but as you point out, you can eat pasta. When I think of a "steak house", I'm thinking of the American version, where you pay $50 for a steak and $12 for spinach and $20 for a baked potato, etc. I'm not always a big fan of those places either.

Dom, a food nerd question about the ears. You say it was "like a bolognese", but it strikes me that a long slow cooking of rabe and sausage might be bitter and not as bright as you suggest.

Can you has a guess as to the composition of the sauce? I would think some browned sausage, some aromatics, some tomato and then throw in the rabe for some quick saute near the end. Thoughts?

I had dinner at Carnevino last October and was totally blown away by the steak. I opted for the beef tasting. The super-prime-aged beef was hands-down, the best piece of beef I've eaten.

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