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Desert Companion

Dining: Chow Bella!

branzino_sabinorr_007.jpg

Salt-encrusted branzini
Photography by Sabin Orr

Salt-encrusted branzini

La Strega and Locale bring Strip-worthy Italian fare (and flair) to the southwest valley

For the past few years, historic Downtown and suburban Henderson have been the valley’s most exciting dining destinations. Now, it’s the Southwest’s time to shine. Two new high-profile restaurants, La Strega Trattoria and Locale Italian Kitchen, offer a distinct take on the culinary traditions of Italy (and Sicily).

Better yet, the eateries are helmed by chefs who made names for themselves on the Strip. At La Strega, it’s Gina Marinelli. Previously, she created dazzling pasta dishes at D.O.C.G. at The Cosmopolitan. Locale is led by Nicole Brisson. She ran the shop at CarneVino in the Palazzo and later at Eataly in Park MGM. It’s no understatement to say that these top toques have droves of fans who’ve followed their moves to their new neighborhood venues. And they deserve the fandom: The menus at La Strega and Locale celebrate the hearty fare of Italy with sophisticated digressions into the delicate and experimental.

Located in Summerlin South near Gardens Park, La Strega (Italian for “the witch”) is a bright retreat with a breezy front space, living room-like lounge area, and comfortable dining room. It’s homey in a stylish, contemporary way. For a cocktail starter, I suggest the Abigail (gin, Liquore Strega, lime sour, mint, and basil). Adorned with flower petals and Day-Glo yellow-green in hue, it looks as bright and bracing as it tastes. The icy spritzes are a close second, vibrantly prismatic mixtures that draw the eye with aquamarine, coral, and marigold tones.

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Rigatoni Bolognese

Rigatoni at La Strega.

For starters, the Adriatica Insalata might be the perfect summer salad. With arugula, feta cheese, tomatoes, cured olives, and crunchy rustic bread in a piquant Tuscan pepper vinaigrette, it’s a refreshing mash-up of a Greek salad and panzanella. (Those craving an appetizer with more heft might favor the braised pork with polenta and Cerignola olives.) Of course, there are pizzas like the traditional Margherita, but the Pesto & Truffle pie with wild mushrooms, fontina, and shaved pecorino with a crown of emerald arugula was the seasonal standout. Seafood options include day-boat scallops with braised kale, corn, and guanciale vinaigrette, and — bringing a bit of Japanese flair to the mix — fresh hamachi crudo with chili gremolata, truffle salt, and cilantro. But the catch-of-the-day stuffed fish was an absolute stunner, with aromatic basil, oregano, dill, and marinated lemons adding zing to a salt-crusted whole branzini. It’s a memorable table share for dining with family and friends. What about pasta primi? La Strega handcrafts its pasta, and a decidedly rustic dish stole the show for me — rigatoni Bolognese with robust wild boar, spicy ’Nduja sausage, and creamy ricotta. It’s rich, filling, and fork-after-fork irresistible. The dessert list is concise but compelling. I went for the extraordinary bomba, a golden-baked pastry orb filled with Harry’s Berries-brand strawberries, pastry cream, mint, and lemon sugar.

Bomba Pastry

La Strega’s bomba pastry

A few miles to the south, Locale has brought culinary cred to Blue Diamond Road. In its industrial-chic space, Brisson’s well-known butchery skills are illuminated by glowing Edison bulbs. My favored cocktail to start was the iridescent orange “Brunch in Milan,” a swirl of infused vodka, Aperol, Avissi Prosecco, and housemade apricot purée. It’s sunshine in a glass, and a potent prelude to Locale’s antipasti, which trend to the robust. Like the crostini, with Cetara anchovies accented with red pepper mostarda and locally grown oregano. Also from the sea, tender octopus arrives with a pleasantly crispy exterior atop a light stew of Yukon gold potatoes, pepperonata, and ’Nduja. (You can’t escape this spreadable, chili-laced charcuterie sensation these days.) The Guancia Fritti ’alla Amatriciana is a croquette stuffed with shredded beef cheeks and sweet-savory onion marmalade on the side. For a more delicate starter, the mozzarella tasting of bufala, burrata, and fior di latte — served with ramekins of tomato jam, Cantabrian anchovy, and mint-pistachio pesto for slathering — is the ticket.

Beef cheek croquettes

Beef cheek croquettes at Locale

Brisson’s pasta dishes balance eclectic flair and old-school richness, including a farm-meets-surf medley of linguine tossed with mussels, roasted tomatoes, Fresno chilis, and marjoram. A plating of fragrant ricotta-mint ravioli is topped with an elegant ragù of braised rabbit and pancetta. Housemade garganelli — rolled cylinders — features a savory oxtail sauce enhanced with celery leaf and orange. Meats command the entrée menu, and it’s where Brisson’s skills shine. Pollo al Forno is simply roasted chicken (yes, that’s a foot on the end of that bird’s leg) with polenta and pepperonata for sides. And the grilled New York strip with a snappy side of Caesar-dressed bitter greens is quintessential Brisson, whose mastery of proteins and devotion to well-sourced ingredients (which earned her a 2015 Chef of the Year award from Desert Companion) promise to keep Locale on the restaurant radar for years to come. Locale and La Strega excel each on their own merits, but the wider trend they represent — former Strip chefs going native — is one we hope stays on the menu for a long time.

Pollo al forno

Pollo al forno at Locale

 

La Strega Trattoria

3555 S. Town Center Drive #105

702-722-2099, lastregalv.com

Tue-Fri, 5-10p

Sat-Sun, 4-10p

 

Locale Italian Kitchen

7995 Blue Diamond Road #106

702-330-0404, localelv.com

Daily 4:30-10p

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