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La Focaccia may just be the best restaurant we’ve discovered this year

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Orecchettie ortolano
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Sometimes a great restaurant is right under your nose, and you don’t spot it, or even smell it. You mightn’t know it to look at me, but I occasionally work out at Las Vegas Athletic Club on South Eastern Avenue, and a mere stone’s throw away is one of Vegas’ truly great Italian restaurants, the unassuming La Focaccia. Who knew?

That’s Sicilian-born Giacomo Zarcone behind a glass partition in the kitchen. He will be busily kneading dough to make what might be the best focaccia I’ve ever eaten outside Italy. He makes these irresistible flatbreads in a stone oven in the corner, along with pizza and hot panini that he also crisps in the same oven. Wow!

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  • La Focaccia
  • 8975 S. Eastern Ave., 650-9800.
  • Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
  • Suggested dishes: focaccia, $6.95; pappa al pomodoro, $3.95; Insalata Rustica, $10.95; pappardelle al ragu di papera, $14.50.

This is a real mom-and-pop deal. Zarcone’s wife, Malinda, ably performs service, with their cute, towheaded 5-year-old daughter, Sophia, occasionally peering at her dad from a counter stool. The restaurant is modestly decorated, but tasteful. Three huge portraits are draped on a wall, and the mahogany tables have a lacquer sheen you can see your face in.

Normally, I start by describing a lunch menu, but since the focaccia are only offered at dinner, I’m going to break form this time, because they are so delicious. Picture a crispy, thin-crusted round of dough, glistening from a brushing of extra virgin olive oil and salt. Now add a topping like anchovy and tomato, or garlic and rosemary. Sheer perfection.

Mind you, these aren’t pizzas. There is no marinara sauce, and no mozzarella. Zarcone does do focaccie ripiene, or stuffed, like one of those doughy stuffed-crust pizzas you’d buy in a food court. But these aren’t those. One is a creation oozing Gorgonzola and Fontina. I prefer the one made with prosciutto and Fontina. Either way, you get a winner.

For such a small kitchen, this is an ambitious menu that relies on excellent ingredients. Fritto misto is calamari and shrimp done with the expert hand of a tempura master, while Caprese, the classic vine tomato, bufala mozzarella, olive oil and fresh basil salad, has the perfect visual balance of a still-life painting.

At dinner only, the chef hand-stirs risottos, made with crunchy Arborio rice; ai funghi, with mixed mushrooms, ai mare, with shellfish, and ai Gorgonzola, my preference, when it is offered as a mid-course instead of a pasta.

But soups and pastas make tempting mid-courses as well. I’ve never had the Tuscan comfort soup pappa al pomodoro (on the lunch menu but available at dinner as well) like the one served here. The soup is a soothing bread and tomato soup, and the chef does it à la minute. This version, chock full of chunky tomatoes and house-made croutons, is as good as the one Tuscan grandmothers let simmer for hours on their stoves.

One day, the chef made mushroom broth laced with sachetti, literally “small sacks,” which he calls tortellini to avoid confusion. The sacks, filled with Gorgonzola cheese (obviously somebody around here likes it), have the sensual bite you only experience when you eat handmade pasta.

And brother, are there ever pastas. Pappardelle ai ragu di papera is flat ribbon pasta sauced with a rich duck ragu. Orecchiette ortolano, from Italy’s exotic southern province of Puglia, are little ear-shaped noodles tossed with sausage, rapini and sun-dried tomatoes mingling with fresh garlic.

Zarcone makes a rich version of lasagna in the oven, using Bechamel sauce as they do in Emilia-Romagna. Its capital, Bologna, gave the world spaghetti Bolognese, and this is as faithful to the original as the law allows. Zarcone is a real student of Italian cooking. “I do dishes from all over the Italian peninsula,” he says. Lucky us.

Some entrees during the evening include battuta di pollo alla Diavola, or chicken grilled with lemon, garlic and chili flakes; tagliata di bue, grilled flank steak with arugula and cherry tomatoes; and calamari ripieni, from the chef’s native Sicily, stuffed calamari with a shrimp and bread-crumb stuffing.

The lunch menu is an abbreviated version of dinner, minus the focaccia and entrees. If you like panini or pizza, though, you’ve come to the right place. One of the more unusual panini is pancetta e uova, Italian bacon, scrambled eggs, Fontina cheese and roast potato. Think breakfast burrito, Italian-style.

The pizza to try here is Vegetali, crushed tomatoes, grilled zucchini, artichoke heart and portabella mushrooms. You can create your own pizza, too, by selecting from the topping list just below the pizzas. I’d also give high marks to one of the chef’s salads, the Rustica. It’s tomatoes, mozzarella, greens, onions and crunchy croutons, but what makes it sing is a clever soy-orange vinaigrette. Everything this guy does sings, as far as I can tell.

For dessert, there are a few ice-cream novelties, and the occasional homemade slice of chocolate hazelnut cake, done by one of his staff members. Zarcone also does a mean cup of espresso, which you can ask for affogato-style, with a little vanilla ice cream in it.

So far, La Focaccia gets my vote as Find of the Year.

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