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Dining

Unusual name, great food

Pips does Italian right (and reasonably priced) at Aliante Station

Image
Fried and fresh pasta.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Take one highly seasoned food and wine professional. Then add a brilliant young chef and a sleek modern design. The result is Pips at the Aliante Station Casino, so far one of this year’s big surprises.

It really shouldn’t be, though, if you think about it. Station Casinos can be innovative when they want to, and using a host such as the confident and charming Rino Armeni, a native of Rome, was a smart move. Armeni, a well-known executive in the wine world, is hardly off the reservation here. That’s him, in the designer Italian sweater, schmoozing it up at every table.

His chef is Gerald Chin, who cooked at Bradley Ogden and Robuchon before signing on. His technique is beyond reproach, but it’s really the products that have the stage here—burrata mozzarella from Gioia in California, guanciale (pork jowl a true pasta amatriciana requires for its sauce) and sushi-quality ahi for a carpaccio.

And one shouldn’t be intimidated by the glossy design, done by the Hatch Group. The idea of Pips, a name that Armeni took from Hugh Hefner (who once had a backgammon club of the same name in Beverly Hills), is modern and romantic without the stuffy. The price point is more than reasonable here, doubly so when one considers the quality of the cooking. So to all you lookie-loos peering in from the casino: Have no fear.

Well, okay, the design is slightly intimidating to the budget diner. The wine cellar, for a start, is surrounded by glass, the bottles fully visible from the dining areas. One wall has a row of plush black booths, while the main dining area uses lacquered tables and custom vinyl place mats. A swirling marble floor by the bar gives way to a lush gray carpet. Giant white stone columns stand guard throughout the dining room.

The Details

Restaurant Guide
Pips At Aliante Station, 692-7777
Open for dinner only, 5-10 p.m. daily.
Suggested dishes: arancini, $10; carpaccio, $13; matriciana, $16; Italian meatloaf, $20.

Some of the dishes here are classic, some are from Chin, and a few come from Armeni’s mother in Italy. I loved the arancini, crunchy golden rice balls that ooze mozzarella when cut into pieces, with a chopped meat center. Burrata, fresh mozzarella with a cream center, comes to the table stuffed into whole tomatoes drizzled with pureed basil.

Prosciutto is imported, the San Daniele brand, served with grissini, thin breadsticks, and an assortment of Italian olives. The one starter that looks like hard work for the chefs is Chin’s eccentric carpaccio, made not with the usual thinly sliced beef (that is, I might add, almost always frozen), but with ahi tuna, on a clever tart constructed from eggplant. It would be foolish to miss this dish, unless you just plain hate fish. Or it hates you.

I regard salads as a distraction at an Italian restaurant, but if you insist, then eschew a Caesar or insalata mista, the Italian version of the dinner salad, in favor of the one called Radicchio, which in fact is composed only partially of the eponymous bitter red leaf, and has lots of other stuff, such as frisee, endive, pecans, apple, blue cheese and poached egg.

Carpaccio made with ahi tuna on a clever tart constructed from eggplant.

The most interesting pasta has to be the artist formerly known as tria, now referred to as fried and fresh pasta (because nobody, including yours truly, knew what the hell tria was). I learned that this is, along with the delicious Italian meatloaf, one of Mom’s recipes. Some people have all the luck.

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So picture squares of flat pasta—some boiled, others fried—like Cheetos, to a “crackling crunch.” Then put the two pastas together and toss in a fluffy marinara. It’s as unusual as you get in the pasta department, at least in this town.

Other estimable pastas here include Matriciana (amatriciana), because nothing melts into a pasta sauce like guanciale, and ravioli, filled with a new darling of Italo-American cooking, the short rib. I also had Pips Speciale, basically spaghetti and meatballs. Bravo, and so what.

If you get past the primi (always a challenge at a good Italian resto), then opt for that Italian meatloaf, stuffed intriguingly with cheese, capers and herbs, or the Bistecca, a 12-ounce cut of Australian wagyu beef for $35, a price unmatched in Vegas.

By all means, ask Armeni to choose your wine. (He gave us a terrific Polissena 2005 from Tuscany, a 100 percent Sangiovese blockbuster.) And don’t miss the tiramisu for dessert. I normally hate tiramisu, so blame Ogden, Robuchon or Chin for the about-face.

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