The Good Witch
When I look out my window
Many sights to see
So many different people to be
That it’s strange, so strange
You’ve got to pick up every stitch
Must be the season of the witch
Stuffed Whole Fish
Don’t look now, Summerlin, but a spell has been cast upon you. Luckily, for the residents of master planned communities throughout the west side of town, the results of said invocation include full bellies and satisfied palates.
It’s been some time since the local foodie scene collectively “eeked” with excitement about an opening in the western ‘burbs, but that’s all just changed. La Strega (Italian for “The Witch”) has (finally, after a few setbacks) flown its broom right into a space on Town Center Drive, just off the 215 Beltway, and has packed in diners since night one of previews.
The room, which has received a full makeover, once housed the beloved Due Forni. Since that pizza and wine bar shuttered, Summerlinites (Summerlinians?) have felt a void in the buzzed-about restaurant space. (Don’t get us wrong. We know Scott Conant — who will be referenced again just a wee bit later in this story — cut the ribbon on Masso Osteria within the last year, but we’re talking neighborhood joints. Anything within a casino is disqualified).
Enter La Strega and its swath of pastel colors. Sea blues and greens give the walls life and bring a coastal vibe to the restaurant. A main dining room and what can only be described as a sun room offer diners two distinct areas in which to experience their meals. The open kitchen is seen on one side of the perimeter and parallel to that is the bar, featuring its themed cocktail menu, each drink featuring the name of a famous woman. Yes, life has once again been breathed into the Summerlin dining scene, courtesy of “The Witch,” aka Gina Marinelli. “We wanted to celebrate wonderful women, cool witches in the past,” she explains. “And we wanted to do cocktails that go with their names.”
Marinelli, 37, was late to the cooking game, leaving a career in sales to follow her true passion – rustic Italian food. Her journey, much of it under the guidance of some of the biggest chefs in America, is now easily seen on her plates.
A quick diversion. At one point during our conversation, Marinelli told me of her style, “I like using great products, using the land, sourcing great things and cooking them with a lot of respect.” Now that you know that, let’s put the puzzle pieces together:
First, she spent time under Michael Mina’s wing, both at Knob Hill and then at American Fish. Says Marinelli of that time, “That’s where you really learn the techniques — how to balance flavors, how to do things properly.”
From there, she sat under the learning tree of Shawn McClain at Sage, where Marinelli fondly remembers her time. She states, “That was really cool. He was doing food really differently. Vegas really hadn’t see that yet. He was the pioneer of farm to table out here.”
Marinelli was then hired as executive chef of D.O.C.G., the aforementioned Scott Conant’s once upon a time Italian eatery in The Cosmopolitan. The master of casual chic Italian cuisine definitely wore off on Marinelli. She says of what Chopped judge Conant taught her, “I learned (from him) how to respect Italy and cook with your soul.”
That’s for sure. Soulful cooking is a good way to describe what goes on at La Strega.
Finally, we cannot discount all the time the chef herself spent in Italy. She refers to the cuisine she loves as “feminine” and “romantic.” Not since Lady and the Tramp has someone tried to capture those emotions through Italian food as strongly as Marinelli does.
Back to those oceanic walls inside the restaurant. Marinelli loves the Amalfi Coast and sites it as the region she most associates her food with. Take the anchovy crostinis, for example. The fish sits on top of a crunchy piece of bread and is hit with preserved orange, pickled shallots, and oregano. The sweetness of the citrus, along with the acidity of both the orange and the shallots, make the anchovy, an ingredient many find too strong for their taste buds, easier to handle. Think of it as an anchovy starter kit. Marinelli states of the dish, “I think it’s a nice, soft approach to get people to like anchovies and that’s how I always ate in Italy - anchovies and prosecco.”
Take a crack at the Adriatic panzanella, a better-than-most version of the Italian bread salad. Arugula, feta cheese, olives, and Tuscan pepper vinaigrette come along for the ride with the makeshift croutons, making this dish as much Greek as otherwise. It’s dangerously light, in that you could probably eat the whole thing without noticing, and that’s a lot of bread.
Don’t miss the blistered shishitos from the “farm” section of the menu. The ever-growing-in-popularity peppers take well to the flame and work perfectly with the charred caulini they are paired with. Caulini, somewhere between cauliflower and broccolini — hey, at least they didn’t crossbreed it with a poodle and get a pooflower — has the firmness necessary to offset the soft pepper. The dark green and black char of the peppers and the lighter green and yellows of the caulini make this dish as visually appealing as it is tasty. Mint and lemon tie the vegetables together. It’s simple and damn, that’s how it should be.
From the same area of the menu, the roasted mushrooms are another win. Unlike dipping your toes into shallow end with the anchovies, you are immersing yourself in the glory of mushrooms and all their umami goodness here. The mix of maitake, beech, shitake, and crimini shrooms bring you back to the earth as you eat it over a homey bed of farroto — yes, farro risotto is the easiest way to describe it — which is punched up with mascarpone cheese. The menu might change seasonally, but this one is a keeper no matter the temperature.
Of course, Las Vegas is a pasta town and it has been ever since the Rat Pack used to spend late nights in dark rooms off The Strip, chowing down on plates of noodles and red sauce. And while we’ve become more sophisticated eaters, damn it if we still don’t love a good plate of noodles and red sauce.
Marinelli’s spaghetti pomodoro is just that. This is a luscious take which, when developing it, Marinelli admits Conant was in her head. She says, “Scott’s pomodoro, in my opinion, is the best. The way he does it and the respect he has for it. We definitely had to do it differently. Masso is two miles down the road. This is my iteration of it.” Don’t worry, the buttery richness is still there, and blistered tomatoes freshen things up a bit. If she’s competing with the man who made the modernized version of the dish famous, she’s doing a good job keeping up with him.
Bucatini Genovese is another pasta worthy of your attention. Dandelion pesto coats the noodles inside and out, making its way through the hollow centers. Bits of potato and green beans stud the dish throughout. Again, this is simple, clean cooking. Marinelli states, “It’s my favorite. It’s a great dish that highlights Cinque Terre (a coastal region in northwestern Italy). There’s a dish from Cinque Terre that’s potatoes, pesto, and green beans. It’s cool. You get this carb on carb that works really well.”
Finally, the desserts are stellar. Concocted by Betty Park, who used to work with chef at D.O.C.G., options include a Nutella mousse with semi-sweet chocolate and passion fruit merengue, a torched bay leaf panna cotta with fig compote and micro basil, a chianti affogato, and a bomba (Italian donut) stuffed with a coconut budino (Italian pudding). Pick one. Or all four. You can’t go wrong.
I ask Marinelli about the name of the restaurant. Why La Strega? She answers, “Everybody thinks of witches as these horrible, evil things we have in our minds here. In Italy, they are the nurturers and caretakers.”
The good witches, all the way from Italy, have finally made their way to Summerlin…
Pasta Ai Frutti Di Mare | Photo by Anthony Camblin
Anchovy Crostini | Photo by Ryan Hafey