Extreme problems often require extreme solutions. In the case of Italian-American cuisine, that problem is a disconnect between food and finesse. How do you pass off garlic bread and meatballs — sustenance of mobsters and cheap mainstay of mall food courts — as an extravagant experience?
The answer is Carbone. Hidden away on the second floor at Aria, it’s an unparalleled addition to our local dining scene — a rare place where the average schnook can eat and feel like a boss.
Their strategy is simple: Turn everything up to 11. While Carbone’s original Manhattan location (graced with three stars by The New York Times) serves as a loose blueprint, our local outpost is very Vegas. For starters, it’s twice the size. There are also nods to the mid-century: Louis Prima tunes blare on the speakers, a floor-to-ceiling Murano glass chandelier (originally commissioned for a 1960s Ferrari showroom) lights the main dining room, and artwork by David Hockney dresses the walls. The details add up to something that’s theatrical without being kitschy.
Even the menu, which is nearly the size of a roadside billboard, makes a statement. However, you won’t find the aforementioned meatballs on it. They’re only offered as a verbal special by your tuxedo-clad captain — in our case, a slick-talking server who could have talked me into ordering a bowl of air.
The table started with baked clams. They arrived three ways: topped with uni, buried under glorious butter-logged breadcrumbs (oregenata style), and laced with tissue-thin sheets of lardo. It’s like a shellfish plate standoff. A proper Caesar salad, prepared tableside, followed. A side of both brown and white anchovies was a brilliant detail, but my excitement was tempered by the greasy croutons, which were made from the same sesame seed-studded slices in our bread basket.
I secretly hoped to be disappointed by the rigatoni alla vodka — how dare the restaurant charge $27 for a dish best served in a corrugated tin plate! — but preemptive schadenfreude be damned, the silky and spicy pink sauce was inarguably perfect. The portion was also far more generous than it initially seemed, because an order of veal Parmesan that followed was large enough to feed four (as it should, for $64.)
A side of creamed escarole studded with chunks of pork belly and smothered in white sauce sent our parade of indulgence over the edge. My dining companion and I looked at an artfully arranged dessert cart as tears of regret rolled down our cheeks and onto our full stomachs. But our kind refusal for a last course didn’t stop us from receiving complimentary pours of limoncello and slices of dense, almond-heavy rainbow cookies — a Bronx bakery staple. Anyway, there was still a small thrill in watching bananas flambé prepared for neighboring tables. The expressions of delight were infectious.
And that’s what justified the price of the food ($250 with tax and tip for two.) Carbone is the first Las Vegas restaurant I’ve dined at in four years — as usual, unknown and unannounced — where my party was treated to impeccable service. There’s a palpable sense that every guest is treated as a VIP — not because of the usual temporary optimism that comes with an opening, but because it’s a core philosophy of the people behind the meal.
Great meals often fall into one of two categories: comforting/familiar or extravagant/novel. Carbone somehow manages to merge the two in a way that competitors (Rao’s, Capo’s, Carmine’s) can’t. And in spite of the deep pockets that dining here requires, it’s poised to become la famiglia that every Vegas diner wants to join.