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December 21, 2014

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Guest Columnist:

Chef Michael LaPlaca: From punk rock to pasta for Portofino’s culinary king

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Peter Harasty

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One of Portofino's beautifully delicious pasta dishes: burrata-filled agnolotti with lobster and chanterelles in roasted corn butter.

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Portofino's twist on the classic caprese salad.

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Roasted bone marrow

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Chicken “rollatini” Parmesan

As Robin Leach arrives for his annual summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy — plus, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore this year — many of our Strip personalities have again stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. We continue today with Mirage chef Michael LaPlaca, who brings a taste of Robin’s Italian favorites to the Strip at his restaurant Portofino.

Hi, everyone,

This is Michael LaPlaca, executive chef at Portofino in the Mirage. When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a professional skateboarder or joining a punk-rock band. I watched “The Warped Tour” on MTV and thought chain wallets made you cool. That information begs the question: How did a small-town kid from Ohio go from punk rock to pasta?

My road to Portofino is a story of many twists and turns. My first experience in a restaurant setting was serving as a bartender and cooking the few food items available in my uncle’s bar while going to Automotive Mechanic School. After graduation, I worked as a mechanic for many years. During this time, I listened to Howard Stern on the radio every single day.

One day, Stephen Raichlen was a guest on the show and taught Howard how to grill. This on-air segment made me go out and buy a portable toolbox grill and a Stephen Raichlen cookbook, the first of what turned into a collection of hundreds. A friend introduced me to the idea of making a career out of cooking and fueled the decision to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas.

I sold two cars and my motorcycle, bought a truck, packed everything that would fit and drove to Las Vegas. I had no restaurant experience and $70 to my name when I arrived, so I decided to sell much of what I had to make ends meet at Gold & Silver Pawn now known from the TV show “Pawn Stars.” My focus then shifted to job interviews and making it in the culinary world while attending culinary school.

In my time as a chef, I have worked for countless restaurant concepts and chefs. My first role was at Grotto in the Golden Nugget, and I then went on to work for The Silverstone Golf Club, Fiamma Trattoria & Bar, Bouchon, Alex and Bradley Ogden, to name a few. This knowledge allowed me to create a welcoming, authentic experience at Portofino.

I want my food to be so great that it opens guests’ eyes to something new and they will leave my restaurant wanting more. I am continuing to find ways to show my guests something that is familiar to them but that they haven’t seen before. For now, my sights are focused on using the freshest seasonal ingredients.

On my first day of culinary school, I was told to write my long-term goal on the first page of my notebook so that every day when I got to class, I would remember that dream. I wrote, “Executive chef on the Las Vegas Strip.”

What comes next? Only time will tell.

Be sure to check out our other guests columnists today, Shawn Stockman of Mirage headliners Boyz II Men and Alicart Restaurant Group CEO Jeffrey Bank. Then this week we’ll meet up with the sexy topless dancers from “X Burlesque” at the Flamingo, stunt superstar Ricardo Laguna, the SLS Las Vegas president, who reveals a few secrets, and more.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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