Closing one of the Las Vegas Strip’s longest-running and most successful restaurants, and replacing it with something new, would be a challenge for anyone — even if it weren’t happening during a global pandemic.
Fortunately for Bobby Flay, he had a deep bench of talent to draw from while assembling the opening team for Amalfi, which debuts this month in the former home of Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace.
“Amalfi’s opening crew is a who’s who of my very best team members from the last couple of decades who have come back to support my current passion, the Amalfi Coast of Italy,” Flay told the Review-Journal in an email announcing his team.
‘Do you need a chef?’
Running Amalfi’s kitchen will be Anthony Fusco, whom local residents (and Food Network viewers) may know from the time he’s spent in his wife’s family business, Freed’s Bakery, and two seasons of “Vegas Cakes.” What some may not know, however, is that Fusco is an accomplished fine dining chef who has worked in the kitchens of Guy Savoy, Tom Colicchio and Rick Moonen and helped Flay open Mesa Grill in Caesars Palace in 2004. And his history with Flay goes back even further.
“I got my start with Bobby as an intern in the year 2000 at Mesa in New York,” Fusco says. “And he has done amazing things for me in my career since then.”
The two have stayed in touch over the years. When “Vegas Cakes” was greenlighted at Food Network, Fusco called Flay for advice. And when he read in the Review-Journal that Mesa Grill was closing, he called his old mentor to congratulate him on the restaurant’s long run.
While Flay was in the midst of a “Today” show appearance announcing the debut of Amalfi, he nonetheless took the call. When he informed Fusco of the new concept that would replace Mesa, it sparked something.
“He said we’re going to do coastal Italian — lots of fish, lots of pasta — and immediately my ears picked up. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. Do you need a chef?’ half-jokingly but also half serious. He asked me if I was serious, and I said I absolutely was.”
On the pastry front
Fusco has experience cooking seafood at RM Seafood in Mandalay Bay and Harbour in New York City, and a passion for Italian cooking rooted in his large Italian family. His time at Freed’s also has left him fairly well-versed in pastries and desserts. Nonetheless, he knew he’d need some help on the pastry front.
Within Flay’s organization, nobody knows pastry better than Clarisa Martino, who has spent nearly 19 years with the company. She worked with Fusco at Mesa Grill New York and visited Las Vegas frequently during her time as corporate pastry chef. At Amalfi, she’ll oversee pastas, breads and desserts.
For the latter, Flay wanted Martino to draw on the Italian coast’s famed lemons, which she experienced during her travels there. “You can eat them like an apple, they’re so sweet,” she recalls of the fruit, which she’ll celebrate in what sounds destined to become a signature dessert.
“It’s a ricotta and lemon cake, and it has a lemon curd, lemon mascarpone and a lemon tuile wafer on top. So you get soft, you get creamy and you get crunchy, and it excites your palate.”
‘Dining room boss’
With Fusco and Martino helming the back of the house, Flay has turned to another familiar face for the front. The “dining room boss,” as the celebrity chef jokingly refers to the general manager position, will be J.P. Francois, who spent 13 years at the local Mesa Grill and opened Shark at the Palms. Their history together dates back further than that, however.
“Literally the day of our (planned opening) will be two days away from 26 years that I’ve been with Bobby — except for a very small hiatus that we won’t mention because Bobby still calls me a traitor,” Francois says smiling, referring to his time working for the legendary Daniel Boulud.
Of the opening team, Francois is the only one to have experienced the Amalfi Coast with the boss. In the summer of 2019, as they were both preparing to open Shark, Flay invited him along on a trip. At the time, Francois says he had no idea Flay was planning a restaurant around the experience.
“Obviously something was going on in his brain,” Francois says in retrospect.
‘Everybody’s going to love it’
Also on board for the opening is Renee Forsberg. After serving as Flay’s worldwide culinary director for 14 years, she’s rejoined the team as an opening consultant. Flay calls her “the only other person on the planet who can cook every dish from every one of my restaurant concepts both past and present,” and says he “couldn’t ever imagine opening a new restaurant without her.”
“When Bobby and I first spoke about coming out here, I was very excited about it, especially when I found out that Anthony would be the chef,” says Forsberg, noting her work with Fusco at Mesa 17 years ago.
Of course, the familiar faces most important to Amalfi’s success will be those of Flay’s loyal fans.
“We have customers who have been following us since 1991, who know Bobby from 30 years ago,” Francois notes. “They know the Bahamas. They might know New Jersey. They might know New York City. … So they’re going to come, and everybody’s going to love it. We just know Bobby’s going to kill it.”