While it may seem that Las Vegas is one perpetual bachelor party with hundreds of drunken frat boys expressing themselves loudly through expletives while leaving a hazy trail of smoke in their wake as they converge upon casino after casino, Sin City does have its pockets of civility. One such refuge is Il Mulino during the lunch hour when it’s a veritable island of isolation and paragon of propriety despite being mere feet from the maddening throngs. Perhaps it’s that aspect of propriety that explains the absence of teeming masses during lunch.
Yes, it’s THAT Il Mulino, scion of the famous Italian restaurant held in reverential esteem and cited by the cognoscenti as perhaps the very best Italian restaurant in all of the five boroughs comprising New York City (although Mario Batali might have something to say about that). The Las Vegas outpost of the fabulous Metropolis Italian restaurant is located at the top level of the Forum Shops at Caesars next door to Tommy Bahama. The setting is so elegant, the ambiance so splendorous that you’ll quickly forget the proximal partiers.
It’s not the crapulous carousers who frequent Il Mulino at night, but a more conservative, nattily attired crowd which appreciates and can afford decorum with their deliciousness. Unlike at the personal proximity, sardine can tight seating at the New York City institution, there’s plenty of elbow room at the Vegas instantiation. You’ll need that room to loosen your belt a notch or two, such is the alimentary excess to which you will be treated. Virtually from the moment you’re seated until you settle the bill of fare, the ingratiating staff will continue to feed you in a manner reminiscent of an Italian grandmother.
As you pass through the double doors into the capacious and swanky milieu, the casino seems to melt away into the background. To your right is a wine cellar any oenophile will love and at your left flank is a long bar atop of which are several jars of fruits (lemons, pears, strawberries) marinating in grappa, a brandy distilled from the fermented residue of grapes after they have been pressed in wine-making. Those fruits will marinate for several weeks, after which the resultant liqueur is as smooth and aromatic as the nectar beloved by Roman gods. Our waiter made sure our meal ended with pear grappa, the perfect ending to a perfect meal.
Plush burgundy carpet ensures a comfortable walk to your table, overlaid with white linens and impeccably set with crystal stemware, silver place settings and a single red rose. Wrought-iron Gothic chandeliers provide overhead illumination while large picture windows let in natural sunlight and provide a view of the strip without letting in the cacophony. Weather permitting, you can dine on the patio where you’ll have an even better view, but then you’d be foregoing a meal at one of the city’s most luxurious dining rooms.
As you stride to your table, you can’t help but note–both visually and olfactory–a frying pan sizzling over a cook stove burner and a tuxedo-clad waiter lovingly tending to a tangle of peppery ribbons of zucchini marinated in extra virgin olive oil. You’ll make a mental note to order this olfactory arousing siren, but you need not. It’s one of several complementary items the wait staff will bring to your table. By the time your meal is done, you’ll feel more affection for the genteel wait staff than you will for your many of your relatives.
The lightly fried zucchini is served cold, the fragrant remnants of the frying process undeniable. The olive oil in which the zucchini is fried and later marinated in is of excellent quality–rich and unctuous with pungent notes. The zucchini is served with painfully thin slices of richly marbled salami. The salami is obviously not processed; it’s an indulgent quality salami you might save for a special occasion.
The increasingly endearing waiter will then approach your table with a quarter wheel of imported Grana Padano, a semi-hard grainy cousin of Parmesan. He will expertly slice a hunk or three and deposit them carefully onto your plate. This is the type of cheese turophiliacs (people obsessed with cheese) will sniff, perhaps to discern the grasses consumed by the happy cows who produced this rich, delicately flavored cheese. Compared to its Italian cousin Parmigiano, it’s not quite as salty, is less “nutty” and is definitely more subtle.
The next thing your benefactor-waiter will bring to your table is an amuse-bouche of bruschetta with tomato and basil along with a single mussel. Amuse-bouche are typically single, bite-sized “hors d’oeurvres” (though you’d better not use that term around an Italian serving it to you), but this bruschetta is easily a three-bite snack. It is thoroughly soaked in olive oil, but not enough to render it mushy. The lightly toasted bruschetta still crunches when you bite into it.
Not pictured in this review is the basket of breads your waiter (with whom you’ll be in love by this point) will bring you. The basket includes hard-crusted Italian bread and lightly toasted garlic bread saturated in unctuous olive oil. Real butter spreads on nicely on the Italian country bread, but you’ll want to save a slice or two to sop up the sauce-laden entrees to follow. It’s almost sinful to call the second bread “garlic bread” because it’s what all garlic bread should taste like.
By this point you’re probably contemplating a post-meal nap or might be considering proposing to your waiter who, thus far, has lavished you with more gifts than a lover. It’s here that the waiter will recite the day’s specials. Cognitive psychologists have long theorized that retaining much more than seven chunks of information in memory is a challenge (especially if you’re older than fifty). The Il Mulino staff has a Jeopardy contestant-like ability to remember much more. The list of specials reads like some restaurants’ entire menus and each special may include more than seven chunks of information itself. I still haven’t memorized my cell phone number so the specials recital feat greatly impressed me.
So did our antipasti choice, a sort of deconstructed Caprese salad consisting of richly marbled prosciutto di Parma sliced so thinly you could almost see through it; fresh buffalo mozzarella; a sprig of fresh, fragrant basil; a large, sweet fig; and roasted red peppers topped with capers. Opt to have the aged Balsamico and extra virgin olive oil drizzled onto the entire plate for an even more flavorful starter. A great aged Balsamic (and there is none better than New Mexico’s own Aceto Balsamico). enhances the flavor of virtually everything and Il Mulino uses a great Balsamico.
From among the antipasti, my favorite is probably the buffalo mozzarella which is soft and moist with a pronounced milky flavor. It literally oozes milk and has a musky, slightly grassy and thoroughly unctuous flavor. If you’ve ever had buffalo mozzarella from the Campana region of Italy, the rubbery American versions of mozzarella will never do. Il Mulino does not compromise on quality. The antipasti will set you back as much as some entrees at a fine-dining restaurant, but the memories alone are worth the splurge.
You won’t fine spaghetti or even lasagna on the menu. Il Mulino’s Northern Italian menu does have its red sauce pasta dishes, but more prominent are rich, creamy white sauces. You’ll also find refined risottos, the type of which prompt me to forgo pasta every time. The pesci (seafood), carne (beef and lamb) and pollo (poultry) entrees tend to be more pricy. Portions are profligate. Think family-sized portions. You’ll definitely find yourself taking leftovers home.
If one of your criteria for a life mate is someone who can cook, that’s another quality you’ll love about the wait staff. The kitchen may compose and conduct the masterpieces, but it’s your waiter who will take them to their crescendo in small cook stove burners at their prep station. It’s the waiter who will shave black truffles onto your pasta and who will season them to perfection. It’s your waiter who will toss the al dente pasta and perfectly prepared risotto to ensure they will arrive at your table at their peak of flavor saturation and temperature.
The tortellini alla Panna, a meat tortellini with a cream sauce and sweet peas and a touch of black truffles is one of those rare dishes that borders on nauseatingly rich–so rich you swear you can’t eat another bite, but so good you can’t stop eating it. The pasta is perfectly al dente, the truffle scented sauce is absolutely addictive and each tortellini is generously stuffed. The green peas taste freshly shucked out of a pod.
Risotto became a part of pop culture when a Seinfeld episode lampooned the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom. The risotto at Il Mulino might elicit such a passion. One criticism friends have levied towards me is my penchant for ordering risotto at fine-dining Italian restaurants then enumerating the number of select few restaurants who have prepared the risotto correctly. In recent years, my count has climbed from under a handful to a baker’s dozen. Il Mulino’s is among the very best.
Four risotto options are available: Risotto Frutti di Mare (assorted seafood), Risotto Milanese (saffron with white wine), Risotto Porcini (assorted wild mushrooms) and Risotto Primavera (seasonal vegetables with prosciutto). It’s the latter I ordered and consumed lustily. The fresh seasonal vegetables included zucchini, onions, mushrooms and broccoli were perfectly prepared and seasoned. The risotto was artisinal, each fluffy long-grain of rice inheriting the flavors of the olive oil and stock in which they are prepared. Risotto bears careful watching and constant stirring so that when done, the rice is cooked through and redolent with a creamy sauce made as the starch leaches out of the rice and melds with the stock.
Full as you might be after your marathon meal, it’s nearly impossible to resist your waiter’s charms as he describes the dessert menu, paying attention to enunciate the qualities of his particular favorite. Fortunately our waiter’s favorite dessert is also my favorite–tiramisu. Il Mulino’s version is enhanced further with a pool of rich zabaglione studded with berries. The tiramisu is drenched in Kahlua and is as good as any tiramisu I’ve ever had anywhere.
Another terrific dessert option–particularly if you like ice cream–is the tartufo which translates literally from Italian to “truffle.” It’s a rich (a word which seems to describe almost everything on the menu) Italian ice cream dessert composed of two flavors of ice cream–an adult dark chocolate and a nutty vanilla covered with a dark chocolate shell. The two chocolate shells are flanked by pools of zabaglione with berries. If you weren’t completely full before dessert, you will be afterwards, but it’ll be a good full, one you’ll long remember with a swoon.
Il Mulino has expanded beyond New York City to Roslyn, New York; Miami, Florida; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Ilinois; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Orlando, Florida; and Houston, Texas. It’s a long-standing restaurant philosophy to use only the best and freshest ingredients possible, to prepare and present every item beautifully and to treat all guests with close personal attention to maximize their dining experience. Mission accomplished! Il Mulino gave me one of the very best dining experiences of my life–not just one of the best Italian, but the best of any type.
Il Mulino of New York
Caesars Forum Shops
3570 South Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, Nevada
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: Capresa, Tortellini alla Panna, Risotto Primavera, Tiramisu, Tartufo, Pera Grappa, Tartufo