Among the things you really don’t want to hear after putting your name on a restaurant waiting list and killing time for 45 minutes: “I can’t find it. Go ahead and seat them.”
Well, OK, the second part was exactly what we did want to hear at the Grotto Ristorante at the Golden Nugget. But the first part? That was something the hostess really should’ve kept to herself. We’d have been none the wiser, but as it was, we wondered both if we’d really needed to wait those 45 minutes and just how disorganized the front of the house was if they couldn’t keep a simple wait list straight.
Then, despite the presence of empty tables in the main dining room, we were led across the hall to a sort of annex. I was just about to demur when I looked to my left and spotted, beyond a wall of glass, the hotel’s justly famed pool area, closed but attractively illuminated and, with the sea life drifting around the huge tank, quite the island of tranquility. Hmmm, busy dining room or quiet view of the pool? No contest, and I suggest anyone dining at the Grotto ask for the latter and not the former.
But of course, it always comes back to the food, and there Italian restaurants — which are, along with a steakhouse and a Mexican cantina, practically a requirement in any casino — have more than the usual uphill battle. Italian food is tantamount to comfort food in this country, so restaurants need to include enough loose-old-shoe favorites while adding enough twists to keep things interesting. And the Grotto does that, from its Spaghetti Bolognese and pizzas to ... well, for example, its Mahi Siciliano ($25.99).
Mahi Siciliano? Doesn’t sound like much, does it, until you read the menu description that it’s crusted with cappellini? Yes, cappellini, as in angel hair, as in the fish was crusted with pasta, which is something you don’t see on every trattoria menu. And it was nicely done, the casing of pasta just substantial enough to be noticeable, and buried (that’s a good thing) under a nice garlicky tomato sauce with a number of whole shrimp. The roasted asparagus on the side was perfect, the potatoes definitely offbeat in that they were sort of Italianized home fries, with plenty of tomato.
We must have been in a crusty mood because the Pollo Romano ($19.99) also was crusted, although this time with the namesake cheese, just enough that its assertive flavor didn’t overwhelm. The preparation was quite different from the fish, in this case napped with a light white-wine sauce, with the Southern Italian influence showing up in chunks of tomatoes and artichoke hearts. Penne was served on the side.
Our starter actually was somewhat of a mixed bag. It was a Cannelloni di Pollo ($9.99), like the Mahi labeled a specialty of the house. That boded well because I love cannelloni, which are by definition delicate, and although the menu description of “airy light pasta” was a little off, the reality was even more so. This was indeed pasta, the conventional stuff and not the crepelike sheets (crespelle in Italian) usually used in this dish, with “airy” and “light” not entering into it. The filling was very good, though, a mixture of chicken and spinach, marinara and bechamel sauces napping it all.
Service was solid despite the fact that our server was clearly overburdened by a couple of large tables during the furniture show, but the team approach helped in this regard. He made sure we had plenty of the warm, crusty bread with its cup of well-seasoned olive oil, which kept us happy until the cannelloni arrived.
The Grotto isn’t much of a grotto; it’s more of a big noisy room. But if you can snag a table across the way with a view of the pool and its grottolike structures, in downtown Las Vegas, that’s about as good as it gets.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or email her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.