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Pizzetta, build-your-own lasagna, whole branzino: Julian Serrano refreshes Lago menu

Updated February 3, 2023 - 3:39 pm

Lago, the Italian restaurant overlooking the Fountains of Bellagio, steeps in soft late-afternoon light. At one of the soaring arched windows, chef Julian Serrano, the James Bearded and Michelin-starred creator of Lago, is celebrating the seasonal pleasures of Italian black winter truffles with a group of visitors.

He slices one open to reveal the lacy branching of white veins. He shaves a small heap of petals into the palm of a visitor, then seasons it with a spatter of salt. He urges the guests to try slices of a Lago pizzetta, its thin crust laden with pata negra, the luscious ham from the Ibérico breed pig; with truffled cheese; and with truffle shavings stretching almost from edge to edge.

“Truffles are about relationships. It’s one of those ingredients, you have to have a connection,” said the chef, whose truffles are sourced from a couple who hunt the precious fungi in the Marche region of Italy, northeast of Rome.

The pizzetta is among the highlights of a menu that is almost 70 percent new at Lago. This extensive menu refresh is the first to occur since an initial refresh about six months after the restaurant opened in 2015.

“We felt like it was time for a change for everybody,” Serrano said. “People like to see changes. We want to keep things more fresh, more welcoming.”

What’s not changing? Lago’s signature balmy ease that invites diners to linger for just one more glass on the Bellagio Coast.

Have it your way

The other afternoon, besides the pizzetta with its strew of truffles, the chef discussed other highlights from the new menu.

A muffaletta stacks salumi, mortadella, ham, mozzarella and olives inside a round sesame loaf. There’s a build-your-own lasagna in which folks select the filling — bolognese, spicy arrabiata, truffle fondue — to layer between housemade noodles.

Scallops are seared on the plancha, then plated with a sauce of saffron and prosecco.

“The sauce has a beautiful color that works together with the scallops, the sweetness of the scallops,” the chef said. “Cooking on the plancha, it’s more healthy, just a little bit of oil, salt and pepper, and the scallops caramelize quickly.”

Fish whole, martinis in flight

Branzino used to be presented as fillets only at Lago. On the new menu, it arrives whole and boneless (no head, though), with sunchoke purée and salsa verde. Customer tastes prompted the change, Serrano said.

“People travel, they go to other places that offer the whole fish. Branzino has become very popular. It’s one of the fish that’s very consistently good. Whole fish is more to share, for two people, if you feel like that.”

A flight of four exuberant espresso martinis variously featuring cheesecake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate hazelnut mousse and vanilla ice cream leads off a dessert selection that also includes classic tiramisù.

“It’s simple, rich, but light,” the chef said. “You can eat it in 10 bites — you don’t even feel it.”

Cocktails from the coast

The cocktail program at Lago has been refreshed, too, courtesy of Julian Cox, executive director of beverage and the corporate mixologist for MGM Resorts International. It’s been about four years, he said, since the last renewal. The new drinks menu encompasses seven cocktails.

“I always look at what the chef is doing to create a menu that’s complementary to the food,” Cox said. “There are a lot of coastal influences, so some of the cocktails themselves have nods to coastal influences.”

A Lago Coastal Tonic, conjured with Picùcinque (“plus five”) Italian gin, includes a bit of saline solution when it goes out to the table. A Positano Martini, Cox said, “has a beautiful salinity to it that gets sprayed on at the end”; the mix includes a briny Lustau sherry aged near the Atlantic Coast.

Italian vodka filtered through black diamonds headlines a You Broke My Heart, Fredo cocktail, joined in the glass by Strega herbal liqueur, mezcal, green chile and pineapple.

“Occasionally, it’s nice to have something that’s not so serious,” Cox said. “It’s one of those drinks people automatically laugh at the name, but it has adventurous flavors. If a cocktail name is interesting, they’ll order it, and it introduces them to new ingredients.”

A big anniversary

This fall, Julian Serrano celebrates 25 years at Bellagio. His Picasso restaurant debuted with the debut of the property in October 1998. Picasso sends out dishes inspired by the regional cooking of Spain and France, in a dining room garnished with paintings and ceramics by the namesake artist. Like Lago, Picasso looks onto the Bellagio lagoon.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to believe we’re here 25 years,” the chef said. “I can’t believe all that time has passed. They make it easy for you to stay here for a long time.”

Serrano added he had no new projects planned for Las Vegas.

“We want to continue to listen to the customers, what they want. My project right now is keeping the restaurants up to date.” And truffles, surely, will have a part to play.

Contact Johnathan L. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ItsJLW on Twitter.

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