Last week I found myself in the United Kingdom, ushering four Chinese friends on a mini-tour. Needless to say, they tired quickly of British food, which, especially in winter, is an oxymoron in the extreme. Chinese and Italian cuisine filled the gap nicely, though.
What does this have to do with Carmine’s on the Hill, formerly La Collina, hard by a bluff overlooking the entire Vegas valley? Only this: I located a restaurant called Sergio in Chester, England, which I chose because the owner, named Sergio, of course, sat on a stool at a front counter, eyeballing his customers and employees ceaselessly. My friends, incidentally, thanked me profusely for my judgment.
- Restaurant Guide
- Carmine’s on the Hill
- 645 Carnegie St., Henderson
- Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
- Suggested dishes: pasta e fagioli, $5.95; perciatelli amatriciana, $16.95; gnocchi, $16.95; agnello alla griglia, $21.95.
And that’s the strategy used by Carmine Vento, the cheerful host and owner of this homey Italian restaurant. If you dine here, you will probably be met and greeted by him personally, but if you aren’t, you can be sure he is watching. Many of these recipes come from Carmine’s own mother. Hercules Mantel, the chef, is Greek, if that matters to anyone.
Vento is a friendly fellow who grew up in Brooklyn, speaking the Sicilian dialect. He has a Vegas resume as long as your arm, so suffice it to say one degree of separation can cover just about anyone you know in this town.
All of this results in food that is homey and comforting, if not always, er, polished. I’m an absolute sucker for pasta e fagioli soup, that cannelini (or borlotti) bean and pasta combo topped with a flourish of grated cheese, and this one is a delicious example; the beans are smoothly integrated into the broth.
Order the indulgent antipasto della casa, which seems pricey at $9.95 per person, and a groaning platter laden with good-quality prosciutto, milky mozzarella Caprese, bruschetta and olives, artichokes and red pepper and hunks of imported Parmesan cheese is brought with hot, crusty bread alongside—enough for dinner, if you eat it all.
But no one ever stops at the antipasto. The oversized menu here spans pizza, pasta and risotto, as well as a number of meat and fish courses. Pizzas are of medium thickness, and generously topped. There is even a trio of folded pizzas, here called focaccias.
Normally, I never order risotto in an Italian restaurant, because it’s a dish that requires a lot of attention. If you don’t stir constantly, the grains, usually the varietal called Arborio (as is the case here), become gummy. Overcook them, though, and they turn into mush.
One risotto here, made with shrimp, diced tomato and a touch of Parmesan, was nearly perfect. The Italian gourmet Giacomo Bologna once said, “In great risotto, you should be able to count the number of grains of rice in your mouth.” This one nearly passed his test.
Because Vento grew up eating authentic Italian food at home, he’s included a litany of both true Italian and Italian-American pastas on his menu. Spaghetti and meatballs, which doesn’t exist in Italy, is just fine here, but I prefer perciatelli amatriciana, hollow rods that are tossed with pancetta, Italian bacon, in a spicy tomato sauce.
I’m not a fan of the heavier, cheesier Southern Italian style of lasagna done here. (I like my lasagna Emilia-Romagna style, multilayered and enriched with Bechamel.) But I like the owner’s unmistakably southern cavatelli alla Carmine, loaded up with rapini, sausage and sun-dried tomatoes. And the gnocchi here, little potato flour dumplings, are feathery and tasty, tossed with peas, cream and tomatoes. You didn’t come here to diet, after all.
Don’t expect any respite with the main courses. The eggplant Parmesan is heavy with breading and fairly standard, served with a side of pasta. Branzino, or sea bass, is served with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and lemon, after being cooked on the grill.
If I were ordering meat (and I rarely do in an Italian restaurant, because I am always too full from the primi, or appetizer, and pasta courses), I’d go for the agnello alla griglia, nicely marinated lamb chops cooked to order, redolent of olive oil, garlic and rosemary. I also can recommend vitello La Collina, which pays homage to the restaurant’s former name. It’s veal scallopini by another name, but the sauce—mushrooms, white wine, onions and tomatoes—is hard to resist as well.
The usual-suspect desserts, tiramisu, cheesecake and gelato, round things out. Fridays, Carmine has a lobster special, and Saturdays, he does a traditional osso buco, or veal shank in a minced vegetable sauce.
Carmine, for the record, is there every day.