With so many Italian restaurants in the valley -- many of them getting better and better all the time -- what can one of them do to distinguish itself from the crowd?
In the case of The Pizza Caffe, it can feature a dish such as Timpano ($17), which is the Wednesday night special.
And what, you might ask, is Timpano? If you've seen Stanley Tucci's film "Big Night," you don't have to ask that question (its provenance beyond that being a little more difficult to divine), but in case you haven't, I'll fill you in:
It's a great big, round ("timpano" referring to a type of drum) amalgamation of, as our waitress pointed out, many of the best elements of Italian cuisine, layered and packed and encased in puff pastry; when you're served a slice, it's like looking at a cross section of the Grand Canyon. Only tastier.
There's tomato sauce, of course, the lifeblood of an Italian kitchen. There's pasta, that appeared to be ziti. And prosciutto and pancetta and eggplant and cheese and meatballs and bechamel sauce and a hard-boiled egg. It was, truth be told, a bit much, but the "much" part served us well for lunch the next day, and it never came close to approximating wretched excess. On the contrary, eating the Timpano was sort of like picking through a pile of Christmas boxes, discovering first one great thing and then something even better, the various textures and flavors standing out on their own but also blending into a very satisfying whole. As he patrolled the dining room, a manager type informed us that it takes 12 hours to make, and I have no doubt that it does because of the various production processes that would be necessary. No wonder they only make it once a week.
Our other entree was far more simple-- "monster" rigatoni and ricotta ($14). Actually, we wouldn't call it "monster" rigatoni, we'd called it normal rigatoni, but that was neither here nor there because it was al dente and the sauce was deftly executed and we were happy with that. The sauce was a mellow marinara that had acquired the flavor that comes from long hours at a gentle simmer, and the sauced pasta was crowned with a pile of fresh ricotta in the center and accompanied by three moist, tennis-ball-sized meatballs.
The menu promised that the Mozzarella Half-a-Moons ($8) were "not your typical mozzarella stick," but about the only thing that was different was the shape. Still, these clearly had been made in-house and were finished with an exceptionally crisp coating, which was an effective foil for the melty cheese. Our only quibble was that they were served in a paper-lined wire basket, which made it difficult to cut because we kept going through the paper and the spaces between the wires. And that whole process left us with drops of oil on the table when the basket was taken away, even though we really hadn't noticed any excessive oil when we were eating it.
The Leaning Tower of Caprese ($9) didn't actually lean, which is sort of a good thing. The standards were there -- the mozzarella, basil and tomatoes -- but the balsamic vinaigrette that ringed the tower was a nice creamy emulsification, which was both different and very appealing. We also had a quibble with this one, which was that the tomatoes were not sufficiently ripe. True, it can be difficult to get truly nice tomatoes at times, but at the times when they can't, The Pizza Caffe might be better served in taking this one off the menu.
And we had no quibbles whatsoever with the cannoli ($4.75) we managed for dessert. The gently blistered shell looked and tasted homemade -- it was much more crisp and delicate than most -- and the chocolate-laced filling was creamy and just rich enough.
Service throughout was exceptional. Our extremely pleasant waitress did go away for a couple of rather long lapses, but she seemed uncommonly aware of her timing overall. And I have to say I was charmed by the waitress uniforms, which have much in common with traditional Italian peasant dress.
And The Pizza Caffe has much in common with our idea of a great little neighborhood Italian spot. It's the kind of place we could see ourselves frequenting.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.