Rao’s (Caesar’s Palace)

Update: I have updated this post (originally posted January 2010) with some additional comments and photos from my second visit in January 2011. 

This post is part III of the larger series: Celebrity Chef Dining in Las Vegas.  Other posts in this series include Part I: Mario Batali’s B&B Ristorante and Part II: Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill.

Is it worth the hype? Does it really have the same menu as the New York establishment? What’s the food like?

These were all questions running through my mind as I considered what our meal at Rao’s would be like.

Just a bit of background. The original Rao’s is a tiny Italian restaurant in New York City and has been there for decades. It is soooo popular at this point that it almost seems like you have to know someone to get a reservation.  The tiny restaurant, which only has ten seats, only seats one reservation per evening.  Worse yet, seven of the ten seats are already reserved for regulars, many who have been coming for decades.  This leaves exactly three seats a night.  No wonder it’s virtually impossible to get a reservation.

Two years ago, Frank Pellegrino, co-owner of Rao’s, decided to open a new outpost in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace. This second location is run by Frank Pellegrino Jr., the owner’s son and his wife Carla, who is the executive chef. Update: Carla Pellegrino left Rao’s in November 2010 and will be starting her own new Naples themed  Italian restaurant called Bratalian in Henderson, NV sometime in March.

Supposedly the menu is very similar, with many of the most popular dishes from the NYC establishment also available in Las Vegas.

I was very, very curious.
When you first enter, you see a copy of the original NYC façade. You feel like you are in a fake “outside” walking up to the entrance of the restaurant.

We were seated in the back “patio” section, which was actually surprisingly pleasant. It really felt like we were sitting in the outside patio, oddly enough. You could see the brick outside of the “restaurant” and above us vines hung throughout.
We enjoyed a very good 2006 Tuscan Tignaloto (sp?) wine highly recommended by the sommelier ($195). It was a delicious (albeit expensive!) wine. No complaints there.

The service was a bit spotty in the beginning. It took us FOREVER to receive our drink menus and even longer for the waiter to come by. The timing of things was a bit weird.  The bread came super early, and then the sommelier tried to serve the wine at the same time the waiter was describing dishes to us. A bit weird, but our waiter was so nice (after he eventually came) that we decided we could forgive the hiccupy service at the beginning of our meal.

And the food? Oh man, the food is really really good.
We ordered two starters. The Frutti di Mare is classic, and one of their most famous dishes in the NYC restaurant. This was really delicious. First off, the seafood used was very fresh and cooked perfectly. The shrimp was juicy, succulent, and “popped” the way properly cooked shrimp should. The calamari was soft and tender, and the lobster was absolutely divine. The seafood salad was tossed in a very light dressing of oil and mixed with some chopped celery, kalamata olives, and parsley and finished with freshly squeezed lemon juice. Even though it sounds so simple, the combination works perfectly and the final product is addictively good. The portions are surprisingly generous, and I was half full after our appetizers.

We also ordered the deep fried mozzarella with tomato sauce, which was very good. Bryan thought the mozzarella was very high quality, and it was perfectly fried. Although it was solid, it was less of a “WOW” dish compared to the frutti di mare.

fried mozarella

Fore our entrées, Bryan ordered the veal chop with cherry peppers, which was recommended by our waiter.  He also got a side of the special, which was pasta with proscuitto and peas in a light cream sauce.

The veal chops were AMAZING!!!!! Oh my goodness, it was definitely one of the best meat dishes we have ever had at an Italian restaurant, and that unfortunately includes all the restaurants we have tried in the North End in Boston. The combination of the juicy grilled veal chops with the tangy and spicy cherry peppers just worked incredibly well.  I don’t know how else describe it except that you have to try this one.  A must-try.
The pasta with proscuitto and peas was good, although I thought they over-cooked the fresh pasta. A far cry from the super chewy amazing pasta at B&B Ristorante the other night, the pasta here was a tad soggy, not unlike the texture of the pasta of the lobster fra diavlo at Prezza. Neverthless, the flavors of this dish were solid, though nothing particularly exciting.
proscuitto and peas
I ordered the marinara pasta because I really wanted to taste the quality of their tomato sauce. WOW. San Marzano tomatoes really do make a difference! I have had Rao’s jarred tomato sauce and their version of marinara is the best commercial jarred tomato sauce I have had.

This was many times better than the jarred version. Slightly spicy, this sauce had a deep rich tomato flavor that was sweet from the tomatoes themselves, not from the addition of sugar. I loved it – I felt like I could eat it forever.  Unfortunately, the fresh pasta, again, was slightly overcooked. Still, the sauce was so incredibly beautiful that I didn’t care and ate the soft pasta regardless.

We tried the following two dishes on a return trip to Vegas in 2011

The lemon chicken is one of the famous dishes at the restaurant, so we ordered it on our return visit in 2011. The chicken is nicely broiled, the meat is tender, and the lemon flavor is quite pronounced. After all the hype though, I think we were slightly disappointed. I mean, it was good, but part of me doesn’t see what makes it so incredibly famous.

The smoked salmon with cream sauce tubular pasta that we ordered  had much better texture than our previous pasta experiences at Rao’s. This pasta was beautifully chewy, had a wonderful creamy flavor, and was overall quite enjoyable.

For dessert we split a ricotta cheesecake. I was curious how it would compare to the ricotta pies we have ordered at Mike’s Pastry in the North End.

Well, it was good, although I prefer the ricotta pies from Mike’s Pastry.
ricotta cheesecake

Over all, it was an excellent meal. There’s something to be said about a restaurant when everything is either good or amazing. Really, except for the slightly spotty service and the overcooked pasta, everything else was great.

If you go, definitely order the frutti di mare appetizer and the veal chops. I absolutely loved the tomato sauce as well, although maybe it’s not worth ordering the fresh pasta since they seem to over-cook it. Or, maybe order thicker, more tubular shapes, which can stay chewy longer.
Yum . . wish I could try the one in New York. Oh well, at least we “Plebs” get a chance to try many of the dishes in Las Vegas.

Rao's spread
This post is part of a larger Las Vegas series. Posts in this series:


Mesa Grill


Note: originally published 1/27/10 at 2:04 AM

Caesar’s Palace
3570 Las Vegas Blvd S
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 731-7110
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