Friday, Nov. 16, 2012 | 6 p.m.
When I heard Carla Pellegrino would be featured on the upcoming season of “Top Chef,” I thought, “I wouldn’t want her judging my cooking.”
Really, I thought she was to be a guest judge on the show, not a cheftestant. Someday, likely, she will be a judge. Pellegrino already about qualifies to be a guest star in the series, as one of Las Vegas’ more prominent culinary figures. In 2006, Pellegrino and her then-husband, Frank Pellegrino Jr., brought Rao’s to Caesars Palace. She has since expanded, first as the chef/manager of Bacio at Tropicana (she left that restaurant two weeks ago), then as the proprietor of Bratalian on South Eastern Avenue in Henderson.
Most recently, Pellegrino has become part-owner of Meatball Spot at Town Square, a conveniently placed casual Italian hotspot about a pizza-dough toss from Yardhouse.
On “Top Chef,” Pellegrino has survived two episodes and has already, and expectedly, unleashed her dynamic personality in and out of the kitchen. She’s already cut someone (herself, accidentally) with a knife and often speaks in such a fast-paced Brazilian/Italian accent, subtitles are needed to keep up (check out my colleague Robin Leach’s column on Pellegrino’s saucy tweets about the show).
Pellegrino does possess verbal dexterity. We have a new Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas, “Zarkana,” that is performed in an unspecific language I call “Cirquespeak.” Similarly, Pellegrino’s speaking pattern often leaves you grasping for meaning. Interviewing her is sort of like trying to dance to a mash-up of rock and salsa music.
You’d better be ready for some fancy footwork, in other words.
“Top Chef” viewers will learn, if they haven’t already, that Pellegrino’s fiery, impassioned disposition is no act. During a recent visit to Meatball Spot, she could hardly sit still, flying around the new restaurant to greet guests, fling directives to the waitstaff and generally ensuring the trains all ran on time. She is always acutely aware of service; as a bartender delivered a bottle of water to be shared at the bar, she set down the large bottle alongside a single glass.
“Two glasses! Two!” Pellegrino called out. “We are sharing this! Common sense!”
There is a great question about why Pellegrino is part of this business venture in Town Square. The question is, “Why is Pellegrino part of this business venture in Town Square?” Chiefly, the spot on which Meatball Spot sits is that of a restaurant that previously failed, Nu Sanctuary. Why open an eatery on that gravesite?
But Pellegrino has done her homework. She’s as sharp as one of the knives she uses to slice sausage.
“We have had somebody analyzing the business around here,” she said while sweeping her arm toward the restaurant just across from Meatball Spot. “This Yardhouse is the No. 1 Yardhouse in the country, $14 million in business last year. Brio does very well. It’s the No. 4 Brio in the country, $12 million a year. So if you look at it, the problem was with Nu Sanctuary itself.”
Meatball Spot is just that — a spot specializing in all variety of meatball. There’s traditional beef, sausage, turkey, even veggie. Pellegrino has concocted various sauces. The menu includes a wide array of pizzas, pasta dishes and salads. The wide-open front of the restaurant reminds not at all of the largely concealed Nu Sanctuary design.
Pellegrino is running the back of the house (the kitchen, in common vernacular), but she is not a majority owner in Meatball Spot. Her formal business partners in the restaurant are longtime Las Vegas hospitality executive Tom Recine and Charissa Davidovici. She is the wife of ex-Pure Management Group official Steve Davidovici, commonly known around town by the moniker “Stevie D.,” who has opened a quartet of Sugar Factory outlets in Las Vegas. You can find the candy emporiums at MGM Grand, Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood, Paris Las Vegas and Mirage.
He’s not a legal partner in the restaurant, but if you don’t understand that Stevie D. had some influence over its operations, you are indeed a meatball. But Charissa is hands-on in her role as majority owner, frequently working at the restaurant (and Stevie D. also was onsite on the afternoon of this interview). As Pellegrino says, “She is basically doing all of the front of the house (or, where customers sit and dine). She was here all day today doing her thing.”
As a nod to Charissa, the “Established 1977” reference tops the Meatball Spot logo. That is not when the restaurant was established, of course, but rather the year of Charissa’s birth.
Pellegrino says that after the holidays, she’ll be “looking into” another restaurant in the region, a process that might begin as early as January. It would be what she describes as “a signature place.” She’s also working on a seasonal cookbook she hopes will be released by a major North American publishing house by the holiday season of 2013.
“But now, it is all meatball,” she says, using her verbal shorthand for the restaurant. “I love it here. It’s open and friendly. There is fresh air and good people. To me, it is priceless.”