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October 25, 2014

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The Red Zone: Las Vegas history simmers at classic Italian restaurants

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Courtesy of Piero's

Piero's Trattoria

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Lorraine Hunt-Bono and Dennis Bono talk with Sue and Mike DiBari at the recently remodeled Italian American Social Club Saturday, March 23, 2013.

Last winter when journalists and NFL fans across the country wondered whom the San Diego Chargers would hire as their new head coach for the 2013 season, the owners of Piero’s restaurant in Las Vegas had the scoop.

“We knew several days before it was announced that Mike McCoy would take over for Norv Turner,” says Evan Glusman, manager of Piero’s and the son of restaurant founder Freddie Glusman. “We were pretty sure of it.”

Why would the proprietors of an Italian eatery sitting inconspicuously just east of the Strip be so well informed about an NFL franchise?

“Alex Spanos, the owner of the Chargers, is in here every time he’s in town,” Glusman says of the restaurant that opened in 1982 and was famously featured in the 1996 film “Casino.” “We kept seeing him in here meeting with one guy in particular, and we found out it was one of his assistant coaches.”

One Mr. McCoy, as it turned out.

Deals are made, relationships are cemented, and news unfolds (eventually) at throwback Italian restaurants in Las Vegas.

Such long-standing, late-night haunts as Bootlegger Bistro on Las Vegas Boulevard South, Battista’s Hole in the Wall (known for its strolling accordionist of more than 30 years, Gordy Jaffe) on the Strip, Casa di Amore on East Tropicana and Capo Italian Steakhouse on West Sahara Avenue are a haven for chummy gatherings of influential, famous and powerful people.

Such as the night an entrepreneur named Dana White sat with members of the Fertitta family of Las Vegas (who founded Station Casinos) to assemble a deal that would lead to the Fertittas’ ownership of UFC. Or the night a decade ago when Freddie and Evan Glusman gazed around the restaurant and started calculating how much wealth and power was represented in their dining room.

“We had Frank Fertitta, Warren Buffett, Kirk Kerkorian, Lee Iacocca, (former Republican National Committee Chairman and American Gaming Association President) Frank Fahrenkopf all in the restaurant at the same time,” Glusman recalls. “And the thing was, they were not at the same table. They were all just here, randomly, one night.”

Also, randomly, was the recent night when Magic Johnson sat at one table and Michael Douglas at another. Or Jerry Lewis in one corner booth and across the room Rich Little, watching a cabaret show hosted by Pia Zadora.

Some of these restaurant dwellers might or might not actually live in Las Vegas, or might or might not partake in what would be deemed reputable practices. As recently as 2005, in a scene seemingly made for a gangster movie, a pair of retired New York City detectives were converged upon by federal agents after sitting for dinner at Piero’s.

“They were actually Mob hitmen,” Glusman says of Louis Eppolito (he was the one with the .45 tucked in his belt) and Stephen Caracappa. “These were Italian guys, Mafia guys in an Italian restaurant with an Italian feel.”

Bootlegger’s owner is Lorraine Hunt-Bono, a second-generation Las Vegan whose mother, Maria, scrawled the restaurant’s original recipes herself. Hunt-Bono once served as Nevada’s lieutenant governor, and during her run for governor in 2006, Bootlegger served as her unofficial campaign headquarters, as the waitstaff handed out “Lorraine for Governor” pens.

Hunt-Bono is half of one of the city’s more celebrated couples. She is married to venerable Vegas vocalist Dennis Bono, host of “The Dennis Bono Show” at South Point Showroom and simulcast on FM radio stations throughout the southwest. Hunt-Bono is the rare restaurateur and former politician who also has headlined at a Strip hotel-casino — which she both opened and closed. That would be the Landmark, where Bono was booked at the lounge when the hotel opened in July 1969 and was the last singer at the mic before it closed (and was later imploded) in August 1990.

Hunt-Bono once famously said, “This is what I do for relaxation and recreation. If presidents can play golf, I can sing.” Her best friend was Eydie Gorme, and after Gorme’s death in August, Hunt-Bono arranged a shrine of sorts above the burgundy, soft-leather booth that Steve & Eydie favored when they ate at Bootlegger.

There is doubtless a comfortable, even womblike feel these haunts provide that makes its customers — famous or infamous — feel at home.

One night several years ago at Capo’s, a small cluster of Vegas lounge entertainers arrived for a post-show dinner. In the room was a woman dressed regally in a black, sequined dress. She was Antoinette Giancana, who at the time was meeting covertly with officials for a planned Mob attraction to be staged at the Tropicana. One of the entertainers, succumbing to naivete, asked the daughter of notorious Chicago Mob overlord Sam Giancana if her life had ever been threatened.

“You should know not to ask me that,” Giancana coolly replied.

The restaurant favored by former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman each New Year’s Eve is an Italian joint, too. It’s Salvatore’s Italian Steakhouse at the Suncoast in Summerlin, far away from the Strip and not close to the zoned city limits of Las Vegas.

But Goodman has long been friends of Salvatore’s Steakhouse operators Bob Harry and Jim Girard, from their days as owners of the Tap House sports bar and Fellini’s Restaurant on Charleston Boulevard (Fellini’s is now located at Stratosphere hotel-casino).

The two have partnered to revive the Italian-American Social Club on East Sahara Avenue, where bocce tournaments outside mix with classic crooners inside as the fragrance of red sauce wafts from the kitchen.

“I think all walks of life love the Italian feel the old-school feeling we have here,” Glusman says, explaining the appeal of the city’s Italian underpinnings. “The food is great, the stories are authentic. We don’t lie about who we are, and we don’t have to adapt to any trends.”

“People want to see it and want to be part of it.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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