The newest dining concept at Wynn Las Vegas opened just a year ago with a dramatic change with the chef, tweaks to the menu and a new name. Costa di Mare took over Paul Bartolotta’s Bartolotta Ristorante Di Mare and installed long-time Wynn chef Mark LoRusso in as the executive chef. The changeover last year was abrupt, but now LoRusso and his general manager Elion Prodani are ready to share their vision, plans for the restaurant and how it’s all coming together.
How did Costa di Mare come together?
Mark LoRusso: I’ve had a long history with Wynn Las Vegas working at several of our award-winning dining outlets. When the opportunity to run Costa di Mare presented itself, I jumped at the chance given my passion and extensive experience working with fish over the years, especially during my time at Aqua. And with a chef-switch came a restaurant name change. We almost immediately landed on "Costa di Mare" to pay tribute to coastal Italy in both the name and menu.
Elion Prodani: Chef’s passion has always truly been seafood. When the call came through about taking over this project, I think Mark LoRusso was the natural choice to take the helm.
What have you learned in the first year of running the restaurant?
ML: We’ve learned to successfully expand the program and the concept, while staying true to the original concept that Steve Wynn wanted. We intensified the restaurant’s long-term focus on delivering fish that are hard to come by in the United States, but also on offering dishes that heavily depend on the seasonal availability of fish — and even the resourcefulness of Wynn’s dedicated seafood purveyor in Milan.
EP: Being part of a five star resort, we of course needed to meet certain expectations considering the success of our predecessor. But we’ve learned that we can also take it to the next level, and prove that we can not only do what’s been done in the past, but do it even better. We also shifted focus to change the menu seasonally and expand on offerings.
You came up with a lot of new dishes for Costa Di Mare, including your hard-to-find seafood program, your new pasta dishes and two tasting menus as well as a cordials cart. What was the menu testing process like?
ML: Well, the first step was an intensive trip to Italy. I went on a research trip to find inspiration and try a lot of fresh products in order to develop the new menu. You need to play around with different ingredients and flavors to create dishes that are not only innovative, but also approachable. A lot of the fish we source now has never been used here, so we had to get it here, test it, see what flavor profiles work well with it and then present it to our guests.
EP: It’s always a lot of fun to play with unbelievably fine and exotic fishes and seasonal ingredients. It’s amazing to see that we can call the fish purveyor in Italy for those really rare species and watch the chef get super creative in the kitchen within the next day or two.
Has Las Vegas embraced the restaurant?
ML: The transition and opening happened quickly, but we were happy to see a lot of the regulars who were coming in before embrace it. We continue to see the same faces coming in and they are huge fans of the restaurant. It’s about keeping the quality up, while expanding the restaurant with the seasonal changes.
EP: Costa di Mare was just named "Best Seafood Restaurant" and chef was awarded "Best Chef" by the Southern Nevada Hotel Concierge Association, so the local community is definitely embracing and celebrating the program we have.
Six months in, what changed?
ML: A good portion of the menu changed almost immediately. We’ve always gotten species that are hard to come by, but with our focus on seasonality, we’re bringing in incredibly rare things. For example, we get the Cicala Di Mare, which is a big, flat, prehistoric lobster whose flesh is even more refined than a lobster. They react to pollution, so they live in only pristine waters and the Italian government restricts their catch to a two-and-a-half month season. We’ve also added more fresh pastas to the menu, as well as a larger selection of meats that are prepared over the restaurant’s charcoal grill. Another dish I saw all over Italy was crudo, so we started featuring that on the menu for the first time.
What’s the most unexpected thing that happened in the first year?
ML: How receptive guests are with leaving their comfort zone. There are some seriously intimidating fish on the menu, and it’s pleasantly surprising to see how well they sell, especially when they sell out. It’s also in part thanks to the excitement and support of the wait staff — many of whom grew up in Italy eating the same rare fish once upon a time — to sell through the dishes.
EP: Absolutely agree — the branzino could be fabulous and number one on the menu, but if you’ve got Costardelle, Mormora, Centrolofo, especially in the middle of the desert — it’s a huge effort and achievement! Our goal was to bring the Amalfi Coast to the desert, while staying true to the concept and never freezing anything. Our guests trust this philosophy and appreciate the efforts of the kitchen, which is perhaps why they are willing to explore beyond the familiar.
How about the craziest thing?
ML: We had a couple in the restaurant one evening who ordered 17 rounds of shaved white truffle — during a four-course dinner. They wanted it on absolutely everything, even on their vanilla gelato!
What's the must-order dish of the moment?
ML: This time of year, it’s difficult to pinpoint. I’d say it’s between the grilled octopus and those white truffles from Alba in Piedmont, which we’re really excited about.
What's on tap for the future?
EP: Most importantly, continuing to stay true to the concept. Chef Mark loves experimenting with hard-to-find species, but we must stay true to sourcing the best quality we can find and provide to our guests. The whole concept of our menu is line caught fish, no nets, and completely sustainable. The quality of food will continue to be the main focus — we make sure that people come in for fish that is flown 36 to 48 hours before it’s on the plate.
ML: We definitely want to keep changing up the menu and experimenting with different fish. Every new shipment we get is an opportunity to discover new species of fish and shellfish, both for the guests and for my team. There are times when our purveyor contacts us saying he’s able to get something we’ve never even heard of. We’ll get it out here immediately, play around with different cooking techniques and flavor profiles to best showcase this incredible bounty.