Complementing the fare is an Italian-forward wine list with nearly 200 bottles and 18 by-the-glass options
When you hear the words “soul food,” Italian cuisine might not come to mind, but acclaimed chefs Shawn McClain and Richard Camarota are adding new meaning to the term with the opening of Balla Italian Soul at SAHARA Las Vegas. They’ve also expanded their Las Vegas imprint, as this new restaurant joins their other on the Vegas Strip: Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay.
Located just off the casino in the resort’s restaurant row, the eatery’s décor elements include rustic brick walls and ceilings reminiscent of Roman wine cellars, wood paneling, brass light fixtures, burnt orange and navy-blue furnishings, and lit olive trees. A long bar with a marble countertop features a display of the extensive spirits collection set in arches behind the bar. Large windows near the back of the restaurant offer a view of the Vegas Strip.
Michael Vargas was selected as executive chef. He grew up in Los Angeles and is a 2003 graduate of the California School of Culinary Arts (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts). Vargas brings an impressive resume and 18 years of experience in operations for upscale restaurants and hotels. Recent positions have included executive chef for T-Bones Chophouse inside Red Rock Resort as well as Sadelle’s at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino.
Regarding recipe development at Balla, Vargas says, “It’s an effort of all of us. They [McClain and Camarota] let me take the lead on all recipe research and development and then all three of us come together to fine tune and make sure things are up to standard.”
As for the restaurant’s concept, the name says it all, as this eatery represents their take on Italian soul food. Chef Vargas says, “Soul food is not necessarily comfort food, but to me it creates some memories. Here we take something that’s pretty classic and elevate it with really good ingredients, working with our local [and regional] farmers and seeing what’s out there and we use the freshest ingredients to create a farm-to-table experience.” Camarota adds, “It [the name] spoke to what we feel is important about Italian food: seasonality and simplicity, and taking food you are familiar with, but executing at a really high level.”
The menu is divided into sections of Antipasti, Roman-style Pizza, Housemade Pasta, From the Wood Fire and Contorni (sides).
A must-have from the Antipasti is the Brussel Sprouts combined with pear, delicata squash and pancetta vinaigrette with balsamic topped with pomegranate seeds ($21).
Pizza choices are Gotham with cured meats, pomodoro and fennel pollen ($22); classic Margherita with pomodoro, mozzarella and basil ($20); and Tartufo with truffle salami, confit potato and black truffle ($34).
Pasta is well represented with Casarecce—a simple dish marrying chewy noodles with a tangy Early Girl tomato sauce enlivened with garlic and Calabrian pepper ($24).
The wood burning oven majestically brings forth savory creations such as tender Sea Bream or Branzino served with lemon, capers and wild greens ($52); Mary’s Half Chicken with natural jus and aged balsamic ($43); and Pork Delmonico with black garlic, pickled radicchio and cipollini onions ($51).
The star of the accompanying Contorni is the Broccoli di Ciccolo with lemon zest, garlic, Calabrian pepper and white wine that delivers the wow factor ($15).
Desserts are not an afterthought here, with an exemplary Tiramisu layered with Amoretti Cream, Nutella, ladyfingers and vanilla pastry cream ($14); Panna Cotta with limoncello, seasonal fruits and brown sugar pizzelle ($12); and assortment of Italian cookies like dark chocolate pistachio biscotti and pine nut with Amaretto ($10).
Complementing the soulful Italian fare is an Italian-forward wine list with nearly 200 bottles and 18 by-the-glass options. Popular choices are:
DOCG Merlettaie Ciù Ciù ‘21
a Chardonnay-like white Pecorino with light oakiness from the Ascoli Piceno province of Italy
Samuel Lindsay Gandy Dancer ‘19
a Cabernet Sauvignon from Lodi, CA with mild tannins and bright acidity
The house cocktails are in tune with the Italian soulfulness, with the likes of the Roman Holiday with Italicus Rosolio, Prosecco, Q Grapefruit Soda and basil blossom; as is the beer list, with Italian craft beers, including Tre Fontane, a tripel-style brewed with eucalyptus grown and harvested by the Trappist monks of the Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome.
Dine Like A Local: Bob’s Tips
- An excellent way to sample the menu is to opt for the three-course tasting menu ($75 per person and $35 for sommelier’s select wine pairing). It includes a choice of antipasti, housemade pasta and wood fire entrée with a chef’s selection of a side.
- In addition to the extensive spirits list, the SAHARA partners with various distillers and selects a barrel to fill bottles, which are then served exclusively at the resort’s eateries and bars (including Balla). The current creation celebrates the 70-year anniversary of the iconic Sahara’s opening in 1952 with a 52 percent ABV high rye bourbon aged for 5 years and 5 months in new American oak then rested in a Madeira barrel for another 6 months.
- SAHARA Las Vegas remains one of the few Strip resorts that still offers free valet and self-parking, and the resort is easy to get to with its location just off of the I-15 freeway at the less-trafficked north end of the Strip and is one of the seven stops of the Las Vegas Monorail station.
The Italian soul food eatery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. To learn more, visit Balla Italian Soul.