When you stop to think about it, Las Vegas is as Italian as a tray of manicotti. Diners can get a better-than-average meal here, but not where they might think.
Some of the oldest Italian places attract a tourist crowd. Battista's Hole in the Wall, just behind the Flamingo, is a friendly, family-owned restaurant with memorabilia lining the walls. It dates back more than 30 years. But a walk-in to this restaurant, once graced by the Rat Pack and numerous other celebrities, can face a formidable wait.
Scenes from the 1995 mob-saturated movie "Casino" were filmed at Piero's, where we spent $175 for dinner for two. And Chicago Joe's gets rave reviews, but I found the service and food wanting.
On the Strip, nearly every big casino has an Italian restaurant. High-rollers gravitate toward Il Mulino New York in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, Mario Batali's new Carnevino at the Palazzo or Circo at the Bellagio. If you have an expense account, those restaurants are bragworthy.
But you can escape both the crowds and the high costs on the Strip and off, where the restaurant may be in a strip mall. Don't worry about that, though -- if I've learned nothing else from my three summers in Vegas, it's that location doesn't affect the quality of the food.
Here are my insider picks.
ON THE STRIP
Fiamma Trattoria & Bar at MGM Grand: Fiamma can get overlooked because the MGM Grand has a long list of celebrity-chef restaurants, but I've heard more than one person say it provided one of the best meals they'd had in Vegas. I recommend the brasato (Piemontese braised beef short ribs) and the polipo (char-grilled octopus) to start. Go any time but especially when truffles are in season. One caveat: Ask for a booth or table toward the back, because the open tables along the Studio Walk make you feel as though you're eating in a shopping mall.
Entrees about $28; 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 891-1111.
Canaletto at the Venetian: The Venetian has no shortage of restaurants. I've repeatedly gone to Canaletto with out-of-town guests and have never been disappointed. It's a casual and comfortable meal with consistent quality and good service at a far more affordable price than at other Strip restaurants, including its neighbor, the highly acclaimed Postrio, another Venetian restaurant.
Canaletto entrees $20 to $25, Valentino's $35 to $50; 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; Canaletto (702) 733-0070; Valentino's (702) 414-3033.
Bartolotta or Corsa Cucina at the Wynn: If you love fish, Bartolotta is your place. The fish is flown in daily from Europe, and the dining room looks out through wall-sized windows at the outdoor patio, where you can dine in a cabana setting by a small pool. It is romantic at night, but I prefer Corsa Cucina, on the other side of the casino near the sports book. It has consistently good pasta and a hipper atmosphere.
Bartolotta entrees $40 to $50, Corsa Cucina $30 to $40; 3131 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; (702) 770-9966 for either restaurant.
Rao's at Caesars: This restaurant has received some mixed reviews but continues to draw crowds, no doubt drawn by the name made famous by its New York location. Stop in for a drink and check it out, or stay for the pennete alla vodka. If you sit poolside, you can play a game of boccie while you wait.
Entrees, $24 to $44; 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S., Las Vegas; (702) 731-7731.
OFF THE STRIP
Nora's Wine Bar & Osteria: Summerlin sophisticates and yuppie-minded Vegas locals come to Nora's to meet friends over a wine flight and cheese plate or a full family-style sit-down meal. They have 350 bottles and 60 wines by the glass. The wait staff invites you to sample three kinds of olive oil paired with special salts and fresh bread while you look at the menu. The atmosphere is buzzing (not stuffy); don't be surprised if you see a few kids.
Dinner entrees from about $12 to $34; 1031 S. Rampart Blvd., Las Vegas; (702) 940-6672, www.noraswinebar.com.
Antonio's Italian Ristorante: This is one of the finer restaurants at the Rio. It has a quiet, romantic atmosphere with big booths and a painted dome ceiling. Make reservations. I was there during the World Series of Poker (in June and July) and it was wall to wall with stars from the poker world. Private rooms are available.
Dinner entrees, $20 to $42; 3700 W. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas; (702) 777- 7923, www.harrahs.com.
Roma Deli & Restaurant: You can't see an Italian mom cooking in the kitchen, but Roma's provides all the comforts of a home-cooked meal. This deli is about three miles west of the Strip in a strip mall that holds no aesthetic appeal. Skip this restaurant for a first date, unless you want to impress him or her with your knowledge of locals' favorite haunts. It's good for big groups, packed at lunchtime, and my husband is still drooling from the pesto he had two weeks ago.
Dinner entrees, $10 to $15; 5755 Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas; (702) 871-5577, www.romalv.com.
La Collina: If you're out in Henderson, Nev., or just want a stunning view of the Strip at night, head over to La Collina. The restaurant has a wall of glass windows that look out over the valley and the Strip. Some diners like to sit right up against the windows for the best view, but it can get cold and busy in that area. Regulars prefer sitting in the "cove," an adjoining room. I've been twice and enjoyed both the lasagna alla Bolognese and the cavatelli alla carmine. The center bar gives the restaurant a more casual feel than some diners might like.
Dinner entrees, $15 to $32; 645 Car- negie St., Henderson; (702) 252-7474.