Tuscany Gardens

True confession: I’m married to a meatball snob.

Maybe it’s the mixed Neapolitan/Sicilian blood (a contentious blend if ever there were one), but the man never met a meatball he liked — except those he’d prepared himself. I’m a pretty accomplished cook, but meatballs are one thing I don’t dare make in my own kitchen for fear of extreme derision. And as it turns out, meatballs are something I rarely eat in my own kitchen since he makes them about once every five years, not that I’m bitter.

So there we were at Tuscany Gardens at the Tuscany resort, and the spaghetti and meatballs ($12.95) sounded pretty good to me. There was the deprivation thing, of course, plus the fact that the dish is an acid test for any Italian kitchen. Will the marinara — the lifeblood of the kitchen — measure up? Will the pasta be properly al dente? And then, of course, there are the meatballs.

So I ordered. I tried a meatball. I passed one to him, and when he tasted it … well, I couldn’t have scripted it any better before jotting it on the calendar.

"This is a good meatball!" he said, eyes wide.

Indeed it was — or they were. Neither too large nor too small (slightly bigger than golf balls), they were gently browned on the outside, nicely moist within. They were seasoned with herbs and wine and cheese so that there was a platform of complex flavors beyond "meat." And — maybe most importantly — the texture was perfect, the meatballs neither rubbery nor mushy but just firm enough.

The spaghetti was indeed al dente, and the marinara did indeed measure up. Again the herbs, and evidence of a long, gentle simmering that gave the deep, rich flavors time to develop. And, lo and behold, here was a restaurant tomato sauce that wasn’t overly salty.

And as it turns out, Tuscany Gardens could come through on the fancier stuff, too. Carpaccio di Manzo ($8.95) was your customary raw beef tenderloin sliced customarily paper thin and centered with the customary mound of shredded greens that included radicchio for a pleasantly bitter counterpoint to the richness of the rest of the dish. But it was that rest of the dish that made it so successful — the capers (overlooked too often these days), the aged Parmesan and a blend of mustard, shallots and olive oil.

Pollo Melanzana ($16.95) was a little offbeat and likewise successful. The sauteed chicken breast and eggplant were stacked and topped with cheese and a bit of marinara, then surrounded by a brandy sauce that actually tasted like brandy, which would’ve given us cause to choose the mashed potatoes if we had known. Instead, we opted for the side of pasta and again, the good marinara, the dish showered with a profusion of Parmesan from our server’s grater. Mixed vegetables on the side were OK, but only just.

We even liked the bread — a crisp-crusted Italian with a soft interior, served with both olive oil/balsamic vinegar and butter. (Oh, and let me note here that while we stuck with Italian in keeping with the general theme, bear in mind that this is a casino restaurant, with the requisite broad menu including steaks, fish, etc.)

The one quibble we had about the food was that both sauces were a bit old-school in that they were a little heavy on the oily factor, though not egregiously so.

Service throughout was solid, if a little confusing at first. An assistant brought bread and water (which doesn’t sound so great, but you know what I mean) and then a male server appeared, introduced himself and asked for our drink order, whereupon we said we wanted to look over the wine list. A few minutes later, a female server appeared and introduced herself, and we never saw him again. At any rate, she was fine, and we noticed she was exceptionally accommodating to a party with a member who was trying to quiet a crying baby and needed her order prepared and packed up to go before the rest were served.

The decor was quite pleasant, too, in an Italianate but not Italian-schmaltz kind of way. There was an open-beam wooden ceiling in one room, an intricate coffered ceiling in another, plaster details, lots of greenery and twinkling white lights.

The Tuscany is one of those places in Las Vegas that tend to be overlooked in the shadow of the bigger, glitzier megaresorts. But it has at least one aspect that shouldn’t be, and that’s the Tuscany Gardens.

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.

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