Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas chats with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
You know her as the sexy chef who used to run the kitchen at the much ballyhooed Rao’s at Caesars Palace, where it's much easier to land a reservation than its namesake in New York City with its 10 tables. Carla Pellgrino split with her now ex-husband Frank Pellegrino Jr. of Rao’s fame, and last year, she did what seemed impossible — opened two restaurants within two months of each other. Her first, Bratalian Neapolitan Cantina, gave Eastern Avenue in Henderson a chance to dine on her favorite dishes from her native Brazil and her adopted second love Italy. Then she followed that up with Bacio by Carla Pellegrino, putting her star wattage back on the Strip at the Tropicana Las Vegas. Here Pellegrino talks about the difficulties of opening and running two restaurants, essentially two children, in one year.
How did Bacio come together?
I was coming out of Rao’s. I came here [to Vegas] to open Rao’s. I had no idea what to do. It was after the divorce, and everybody knows about that. I wasn’t even sure if I would stay in Vegas. I had a couple offers in New York. Then the Trop came along. I met Don Racine, the TK of food and beverage of the Tropicana. Right form the beginning, I was attracted. I was linked to all the changes going on at the Tropicana. It was a rebirth. Bacio was already here and it didn’t look anything like this. I decided to keep the name Bacio, which means kiss in Italian. I could try to kiss people with the food instead of physically. They had already spent everything on Bacio so there was no budget.
I wanted to challenge myself. They gave me $50,000 to make it a different room. I went physically to buy everything you see. It was spontaneous. We’ve been very successful. I like the project. I like Tropicana and the rebirth going on here. I’m Latin so I like the property and all this renovation. I immediately felt related to the project. I just had the freedom here because the trust. Bacio has been a great success.
What changes did you have to make to the space?
Everything. This space is still very simple. I’m hoping to get a balcony with terra cotta with French doors.
When we moved in, everything was black. I changed everything. I think the best thing to do when you don’t have much money is to paint it white. I thought it needed some mirrors. It has an old-school kitchen like an old school New York diner. Everything in here has a personal touch. I painted all the chairs black, the floors were the only thing that was pretty. I think painting the chairs black brought out the floors.
Hopefully we’re going to get the balcony soon.
You opened Bratalian in March, then Bacio in May. How difficult was that?
I felt like I was drunk all through the relationship. Because I don’t recall having any kind of a relationship. I had my belly button attached to some kind of stove.
We had $70,000 to open Bratalian. We were physically painting. I bought the clothes from Goodwill. You can pretend to see the whole family — an old ladies’ big bra, sexy pjs from teenagers in the house. It was going to give people something to look at.
My sister has been my chef de cuisine for 10 years. The minute we got through that, I felt like I was drunk. It was like I was numb. I used to go to sleep and I didn’t even ask my brain to think. They both worked out. We have the same staff there and here. I think that says a lot about your operation. The critical time, we passed the first test.
How hard is it to maintain two restaurants?
In the first six months, it’s like a brand new baby. After six months, you let it go a little bit. After six months, it starts to run itself. It all depends on how well you do in the beginning. If you have done a good enough job in the beginning what that brings back is your clientele. After six months you should have half your clientele built up. It becomes solid. You see these people all the time. That’s why I like to be on the floor to find out what you are doing right, what you’re doing wrong. They will know when your sauce is not the same as an outsider.
How is running restaurants on your own different than when you were at Rao’s?
I used to run the back of the house. Usually because my character would not allow anyone else to do that. It’s hard enough to keep me out of the front of the house. Now I am the brand. I’m happier of course. I’m grateful. The fulfillment is completely different. The consequences of this it’s going to reflect on myself. I think it’s very rewarding to be my own brand and not be working for anyone else.
What did you learn?
Everything. I learned that I am strong. I’ve been surprised at myself.
I had my own restaurant in New York City, Baldoria Restaurant, with [her ex-husband] Frank [Pellegrino Jr. of Rao’s].
I’ve been learning for the past 12 years. I learned I could multitask. But I didn’t know how successful I could be multitasking all the time. Everything I do is my problem. So I think I learned that. I am pretty self-sufficient. I learned I can paint walls
What was the menu testing process like?
Usually I am very genuine about that. I don’t use any techniques. I don’t use any guidelines. I just use my guts. It’s what I like to see on a menu, what I like to eat. I like what’s simple, what’s clear. I think that’s what comes to me. My menu is very simple. I don’t have any technique but my own guts.
I never do that on property. I always make my menus at home. I feel like I can smell the menus. My food is basically a food that will bring you home.
Have the guests at the Tropicana embraced the restaurant?
I think it’s awesome. With Bacio we got an honorable mention by Gayot for best new restaurant of the year. We were named the runner up best Italian restaurant in Las Vegas Review-Journal.
It’s much easier for me to measure Bratalian. We have regulars who come in five days a week.
Locals hate to come to the Strip. Maybe they had some family here in town and they end up coming back. About 27 to 28 percent of our customers are regulars. That’s a huge achievement for being on the Strip.
We were talking about doing a promotion with the locals because it has been happening by itself. I think we should do something to keep them here.
Six months in, what changed?
We have a more steady number of people.
Even when we don’t have the regular hotel movements, we still have the locals.
I changed a couple things. I now have a seasonal menu. I never change the whole menu. The most important thing is consistency and to respect people’s palate. When I come back three years later, I want to taste the same dish. If you have to retrain the staff on a new menu, they will always be learning. I keep the traditional dishes. Quarterly, you clean up the menu. In the summer I see what’s selling less and put in seasonal dishes. But always have have the bones of your menu are the same and introduce the kitchen to four or five dishes instead of a whole menu.
Does it seem like it's been a year?
No. I can’t believe it. It seems like it was yesterday that I was running around desperate and I didn’t have enough cooks and I had to find people. It’s fast. It’s crazy.
What's the must order dish of the moment?
If I tell you that this thing is the best thing, I’m telling you everything else sucks. You pick your favorite ingredients and it will come out great.
I think my job is for everything to come out perfect.
· All Coverage of Bacio by Carla Pellegrino [~ELV~]
· All Coverage of Bratalian Neapolitan Cantina [~ELV~]
· All Coverage of One Year In [~ELV~]
Carla Pellegrino [Photo: Tropicana Las Vegas]