Desert Companion

Fork off: Boy meets twirl

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Casa Di Amore
Brent Holmes

Linguine and clams at Casa Di Amore

A passionate pasta fan finds much to love in three renditions of an Italian classic

You might not think of pasta as a summer dish, but linguine with clams — the white wine version — is perfect for the four-month Vegas summer scorch. This classic dish is not so much a recipe as it is an artful assembly of items: pasta, shellfish, wine and adjuncts such as garlic, pepper flakes and parsley. But a deceptively simple recipe such as this is often the best for a culinary assay, especially when everything is masterfully brought together by a skilled chef.

Countless Italian restaurants in the valley do this dish. Some go for old-school comfort-food goodness, others aim for more high-concept treatments. In this edition of Fork Off, I sampled the linguine with clams at Casa di Amore, a vintage off-Strip eatery filled with photos of the Rat Pack and classic casinos; Bottiglia, the shiny new establishment in Green Valley Ranch Resort; and, finally, in the heart of the Strip at Rao’s in Caesars Palace.

In sampling linguine con vongole, I had a few ground rules: I skipped appetizers for a clean palate. Also, as a test, I purposely didn’t ask for bread — sopping up the wine sauce is such a quintessential part of the experience, the bread should be a no-brainer. Finally, no cheese was consumed in the research of this story, Parmesan or other! Keeping it real, Italian-style.

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Casa di Amore: Decades ago, this venerable restaurant was in the hinterlands of Las Vegas, but it had a Strip-based vibe and clientele to match. It still does, in its own living nostalgia kind of way. It features live music in the old dinner club manner that is sadly missing in our modern Vegasopolis. My server called me “Love” when I sat down. “Love”!

The dish: When it comes to an abundance of clams, this house has its shells stacked in prodigious order. A well-sized plateau of pasta came substantially supplied with diced clams, with numerous in-shell steamers piled about the plate. (A petite shellfish fork was set to the side for separating meat from shell — a touch my late Italian nana would have enjoyed.) Eating it next to a picture of studly Elvis schmoozing luscious Ann-Margret, I went Viva Las Vegas on every last drop of the sauce remaining on my plate when the noodles were gone. I would have liked a little more wine-forward flavor overall, and a more al dente linguine texture. Plus some additional parsley for garnish. But that’s just me: I like a lot of verdure in my sauce.

The downer: I know Casa di Amore has a mature customer base, and this demographic is used to lightweight, non-crusty bread with little substance inside, let alone holes from actual sourdough fermentation, but we can get much better bread in Vegas these days. Per favore?

Bottaglia

Linguine and clams at Bottiglia.  Photo courtesy Bottiglia

Bottiglia: Bottiglia was the next and newest entrant on my list. You’ve perhaps seen it advertised on billboards along the 215. It’s from the creators of Salute at Red Rock Resort, a nicely done addition to the Italian tableau of Summerlin and the west valley. The Bottiglia space itself is bright and airy. It’s quite lovely in an informal manner, mixing the aesthetics of the American West Coast and coastal Italy, and has plenty of al fresco eating space under Henderson’s evening skies.

The dish: My linguine arrived picture-perfect. A not-huge but still sizable plate of semolina ribbons was ringed about its circumference with elegant Manila clams. Of all three entrants in my destination dining, Bottiglia’s plating was the most fragrant, with rich wafts of spectral umami steaming above the plate. (It’s said that the majority of flavor profiles humans perceive actually stem from sense of smell; my plate certainly proved this.) Edibly speaking, the pasta was excellent, and the clam meat was savory if not overly abundant, though I found the broth a bit too salted for my taste.

The downer: This dish overall was slightly soupy, and there was no bread to be had for soaking. This restaurant apparently hews to a new style of Italian cuisine, where bread is not offered up as part of the service de facto. Be that as it may, linguine con vongole needs some slices — and a heel or three — to fully partake of its remnant liquor.

Raos

Linguine and clams at Rao's. Photo courtesy of Rao's

Rao’s: Finally, it was on to the Big Daddy. Hands down, Rao’s is just fabulous. It’s a wood-toned, celebrity photo-walled temple of Italian-American cuisine. C’mon ... it’s in Caesars Palace with a famous foundation in East Harlem, NYC — paisan to the gustatory max! Of course, my dinner was a fantastic experience.

The dish: When I first sat down, a mighty bread basket was set before me. There were thin-and-wide cheese crisps, plus well-crusted substantial slices of country loaves. To the side was a trio of butters, two of them flavored — one with caramelized onion, the other with sun-dried tomato. When my linguine arrived, a waiter swirled the pasta tableside with chopped clam meat, and added in still-shelled critters of the Manila variety from a separate chafing dish. It was a fancy presentation, indeed. The flavor was more garlicky and peppery (lots of slices and flakes in the broth) than the other contenders. The pasta texture was toothsomely perfect. Overall, the dish was rich-tasting and completely excellent. It still could have used more parsley, though it had the most of the bunch.

The downer: It sounds almost capricious of me to say, but Rao’s broth was too luxurious. I devoured all pasta strands and clam shreds, of course. But I couldn’t convince myself to sop up all the sauce. It was just too rich and buttery to finish. There was, I confess, bread left in my basket.

The dark-horse winner: Casa di Amore. Maybe it was the nostalgia. Maybe it was the band playing lounge music next to me (with a drummer that kept a steady eye on a baseball game playing on a nearby bar TV screen). It was surely a clean plate completely sopped of every essence of wine, clam and noodle. Mi piace molto! 

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