Continuing to balance tradition and innovation, local mainstay Nora’s Italian Cuisine begins a new chapter
When Nora’s Italian Cuisine opened in 1991, it was a modest operation: 12 tables, a handful of classic Sicilian dishes and a bring-your-own-wine policy. But the small space would put its name on the map with something the valley had not yet seen.
“My mom was one of the first people in town to do a pizza without pizza sauce,” Marcello Mauro, the general manager, recalls. “It was groundbreaking. It was such a hit.” From there, the family-owned operation would lead in other off-Strip firsts: first mixology cocktail program, first to pour wine at the correct temperature (and in correct stemware), first to serve octopus.
“This was done by the big boys on the Strip,” Nora’s eldest son Giovanni Mauro says, “but locally it was unheard of.” Treating local diners with a touch of Strip sophistication paid off. Building a loyal clientele largely by word-of-mouth recommendations, Nora’s steadily grew from a one-room restaurant into three rooms, with a dining room and full bar. And its reputation grew, too. Nora’s genuine hospitality and timeless dishes — its bright, fragrant veal and chicken marsalas, its beloved grilled branzino, its crazy alfredo loaded with chicken, sausage, shrimp and mushrooms — earned the Italian eatery honorary “Old Vegas” status. In September, 25 years since it opened, Nora’s moved into its own freestanding building, blocks from the original location. It’s metaphorically fitting: The move into a new space allows for new cooking methods and menu items, but the Nora’s family is remaining close to its roots.
“It feels like Nora’s, but cleaner and newer and fresher,” says Marcello. “Everyone seems to love it.” Or, as one employee put it: “It’s a new stadium, same team.”
Raising the standards
Sicilian traditions are at the heart of the Mauros’ cuisine, but the family has always been known for infusing tradition with trend. Nora’s has proven its elevated standards over the years by honoring the old while incorporating the new — but more importantly, the new and worthwhile.
The relocated Nora’s still offers its fan-favorite classics, but broadens its appeal with new, grilled items, cooked on a custom Josper charcoal oven imported from Spain. The oven grills and smokes in less time than an open grill and with more precision. It’s one of two in town, and is the pride of the new kitchen, warranting its own menu. The six-item grill menu offers bone-in veal chop, mixed vegetables, provolone-stuffed sausage, chicken thighs, pork belly, and octopus. The octopus — Marcello’s personal favorite, and a nod to the groundbreaking dish that Nora’s Wine Bar once served — is tender and charred at the edges, sliced in rounds and laid atop a lemony bed of pureed chickpea, topped with slices of delicate young celery, green onion and parsley. It’s new territory for Nora’s customary menu, but feels as if it’s been there all along.
A large, temperature-controlled glass wine storage is another significant upgrade, showcasing hundreds of bottles. And the bar now carries six beers on tap instead of one, and a handful of batch cocktails ($12) on tap ensure a consistent flavor. “I like to look at it like a chef coming and doing the mother sauce for the kitchen,” Marcello says.
Uva, a vodka and white wine cocktail, tastes something like an herbal margarita, tangy and refreshing but also complex. The Witch Craft draws inspiration from the mojito, with Cruzan rum, tangerines, tarragon and ginger. And the Eastern Creek whiskey sour packs a dizzying herbal punch, with Knob Creek whiskey, yuzu, chai tea and fennel, garnished with a basil leaf.
That fine-tuned beverage program is also something of a Nora’s tradition. Nora’s Wine Bar, which had a brief but spectacular run in Summerlin, boasted an Enomatic wine-dispensing system, aptly described as the “Gameworks of wine” because it allowed guests to load up a card with cash and self-serve wines by the ounce. Nora’s Wine Bar closed during the recession, but it’s what set Nora’s expansion in motion.
“It inspired me to try to own a place. That’s what set this into place,” Marcello says, sitting in a private dining room at the new location.
The new building is two stories tall and Mediterranean in style. The ground level nods to the old space, with the dining area to the left and bar to the right, but now it seats 40 more and has a patio with bocce ball that accommodates another 30. Upstairs, a banquet hall and private patio are still under construction. Marcello envisions an occasional jazz attic, a continuation of Nora’s live music tradition.
Diners who miss the old location won’t exactly have to say goodbye. A new life is planned for the spot, where Giovanni is working on a fast-casual pizza concept called Pizzeria Monzú. Monzú, Giovanni points out, is a Sicilian term from the 1800s that means chef.
“I’m following in my mother’s footsteps in the sense of culinary principles,” Giovanni says, but adds that the food will be his own. At the heart of the menu is all-natural leavened dough that takes five days to prepare and uses no commercial yeast. “This is how people used to make dough before the 1920s,” he says. “It’s going to be all about the dough.”
The Mauros’ businesses are also all about family. Nora and Gino moved to Las Vegas with their three sons from Sicily by way of Los Angeles and have continued to grow their “family” along the way. It’s apparent in Nora’s staff. Chef Misael Macias has cooked there for 15 years. Manager Joemar Grey has worked there for 14 years, filling a number of roles, and a few servers have worked there a decade or more.
“I used to be just a customer eating carbonara and foccacia at the bar,” Grey says. But now he leads the staff, strengthening their bonds with Sunday Fundays, where they might rock-climb, paddleboard or picnic. And Marcello earned a psychology degree from UNLV, but knew food and beverage were his passion, and ended up managing the restaurant.
“It’s the space we all grew up in,” Giovanni says. “We grew up there, I met my wife there, we all got married there.” The old Nora’s may be gone, but one suspects the new space will be the site of many future traditions — culinary and otherwise — all its own.
Nora’s Italian Cuisine
5780 W. Flamingo Road