Vegas Showdown: The Italian Round

Italian showdown

Kelly Lamrock’s Italian showdown between Rao’s and Martorano’s

I’ve gotten some fun feedback from this format – reviewing Vegas experiences in pairs, such as beer gardens and steak houses. It allows me to share two reviews in one article, and it also lets me contrast the strengths of each so you can get a better picture of what might suit your tastes.

The Italian restaurant is a Vegas mainstay. Nearly every resort has at least one, and they are inevitably popular with nearly everybody. Two that appealed to me are outposts of famous restaurants in other cities – the venerable Rao’s in New York and the edgy Martorano’s from Philadelphia.

These two make a great counterpoint because they are so different. Rao’s is an old-school, family place, with formally-dressed waiters and service that is professional and polished. They emphasize their roots with family recipes and classic dishes. Martorano’s is modern and edgy, with a tatted-up chef who insists that his sauce is gravy and tells you up front there will be NO substitutions. So, who does Italian better, the old pros or the yappy newcomer?

Rao’s is a New York restaurant that is so popular, you pretty much have to be rich and famous to get in. If you don’t happen to be Pat Riley or Steve Martin, the Vegas location at Caesar’s Palace is your best shot at trying their awesome homemade sauces, including a marinara that is legendary.

Italian showdown

First, I will say that the atmosphere and décor at Rao’s are unbeatable. The dark, red-and-wood paneled dining room is beautiful, and the doors that lead to a faux-patio make the place seem big and airy without sacrificing that upscale feel. We were there on our Vegas date night before Matt Goss, and we definitely loved the old-school Vegas feel.

The service matched the décor – unapologetically old-school and high-brow. The wait staff was attentive and they knew the menu cold. Like such places are, they sacrifice informal small talk to maintain a certain professionalism, but they were flawlessly polite.

But, of course, the food is what matters. And we put them to the test with two appetizers that take the measure of the place quickly. Meatballs and Caprese Salad are dishes that are simple but test a kitchen. With fresh, quality ingredients they are fantastic. Skimp on ingredients or preparation, and there’s nowhere to hide.

The Caprese salad was very good – the heirloom tomatoes were firm and sliced thick, and there was a great spicing of oregano, basil, and pepper in the olive oil. The meatballs were legendary. The marinara sauce was rich and complex – the spices come at you in waves. The meatballs were huge (we could not finish them) and tender throughout. The texture was perfect, in that they were a little bit airy without overdoing the fillers. You could make a meal of those alone.

And, if you ordered the veal parmigiana, as I did, you would have zero hope of finishing this meal. The pounded, breaded veal chop was the size of the dinner plate. It was generously covered with cheese and more magic tomato sauce. The breading was a bit thick in parts which led to some undercooking, but the meat was fresh and perfectly cooked. It was a great meal. My partner’s Shrimp Diavolo offered a kicked up sauce with red pepper flakes and chiles complimenting the perfectly cooked, large shrimp.

Dessert was not happening – old school recipes include old-school expectations for appetite. But we regret nothing. Rao’s gave us a classic meal out in a classic resort, and we left full and feeling pampered for our $250, tax and tip included.

The glass and aqua Martorano’s space in Paris’s Boulevard is more informal. It’s clean and modern looking, but the space lacks the intimacy of Rao’s. I was solo on this trip and took a seat at the bar to watch the Seahawks cover the spread for me.

Italian showdown

The bartender was friendly, made a great martini, and on a slow night talked sports in a friendly, informal way. The service was excellent here as well.

The Caprese salad featured mozzarella made on site, and it was the high point here – creamy texture, fresh taste. The cheese dominated the thin tomatoes and somewhat bland dressing. This was a solid start, but not great.

The meatball and bucatini dish was a home run. Long macaroni was cooked perfectly al dente, which is how such things should be. Instead of the mound of carbs you get from lesser places, every noodle was firm and added texture to the dish. The “gravy” (chef says it ain’t sauce) had chunks of tomato and, while not spicy, had a fresh tomato taste that was great. With the scoop of ricotta and the meatball, this was fantastic pasta.

I did have room for dessert, and a white chocolate-raspberry cheesecake was calling my name. It is a hard dish to mess up, and they didn’t. I can’t say it stands out, but if you hear “white chocolate cheesecake” and think “yum”, you’d like this.

The bill was $80 with tax and tip, a bit lower than the more formal Rao’s, but still not fast food.

The Verdict
There is no loser here – I would return to either place depending on the setting and my mood. Rao’s plays at a different level, where every detail matters. Their execution was so perfect with every dish they justified the higher prices and more formal setting. But if you and some friends want a more modern night out on the Strip, you could do worse than take down some of Martorano’s flawless pasta. There’s a reason everyone loves Italian.

[Photos: Courtesy of Rao’s and Martorano’s]

About the Author

Kelly Lamrock
Kelly Lamrock didn't see Vegas until he was 40. Now, he goes several times a year. When home in Atlantic Canada, he's a lawyer, international consultant, and former Attorney-General. When in Vegas, he is consumed by the search for the best craft beer, the perfect sportsbook, and a post-show cigar. He loves Vegas because, as Jerry Seinfeld says, "wherever you're from, Vegas is pretty much the opposite of that."

3 Comments on "Vegas Showdown: The Italian Round"

  1. ChrisinNashville | August 1, 2017 at 7:20 am |

    cleaning the drool off of my keyboard now…..great reviews! I am going to have to try Rao’s someday when I am in town. Viva!

  2. Mr. Island | August 1, 2017 at 8:10 pm |

    While the owner might originally be from South Philly, there has never been a Mortorano’s in Philadelphia. The flagship restaurant is in Ft. Lauderdale.

  3. FamilyOnABudget | August 2, 2017 at 7:18 am |

    Haven’t tried Rao’s yet, but we love Martorano’s. I could go there every day just for the Caesars salad.

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