Scott Conant left Las Vegas, only the rebuild his Italian restaurant empire and return. Conant’s Masso Osteria at Red Rock Resort brings the Chopped judge’s favorite comfort foods including his must-eat pasta al pomodoro, spaghetti in a tomato and basil sauce with just the right amount of butter and perhaps even more important, his caramel budino. Conant, who launched his Las Vegas career with Scarpetta and D.O.C.G. Enoteca at the Cosmopolitan, earned accolades from Esquire magazine in 2008 when Scarpetta was named one of the best new restaurants in America, and again in 2009 when the James Beard Foundation nominated the restaurant for best new restaurant in America. But D.O.C.G. closed in 2017 and Conant stepped away from all of his Scarpetta restaurants, although he is still involved with Scarpetta by Scott Conant in Miami inside The Fontainebleau. In 2018, he won the Eater Award for Chef of the Year.
Masso Osteria celebrates its anniversary with a one-night pizza and Prosecco bash from 5 to 10 p.m. on Tuesday, March 19, with Conant on hand. A menu of passed appetizers and pizza stations serve Masso Osteria’s most requested selections, including the soppressata and The D.O.C.G. pizzas. Everyone receives a free glass of Prosecco and the bar will be serving Conant’s recently unveiled Italian-made SC Wines collection. A photo booth and DJ will also be featured among the festivities. Tickets are $45.
Here, Conant shares some of the lessons he’s learned in his first year of Masso Osteria, how Stations Casino CEO Frank Fertitta helped him develop the menu, and why he’s slowing down on opening restaurants and focusing on television.
Eater Las Vegas: Thank you for coming back to Las Vegas.
Scott Conant: I couldn’t be happier. It’s been treating me well, thankfully.
ELV: Even though you really got your start in New York City, I’ve always felt like Las Vegas had a very special place in its heart for you.
SC: I appreciate that. And I certainly feel that way for Las Vegas and it’s always amazing to me because there’s the outside perception of Vegas being this glitzy place and it’s so transient. I think what people don’t really understand is the sense of community there. If you’re a good to it, it’s good to you. So I’ve always been very thankful for that.
ELV: You’ve been back for a little over a year.
SC: It was a year today [Feb. 14] we opened up. It was our last friends and family and we opened up the book to some clients… I actually had forgotten until you mentioned it, so I just thought about it just now.
ELV: So how’s it been going?
SC: It’s been great. We’ve had really good feedback from the community. It’s a very different situation, clearly, being off the Strip because we don’t have the conventions and things like that that we can piggy back on. We’re dealing with a lot of regulars. At any point in time you walk in and there’s a slew of locals there, which you don’t get when you’re on the Strip.
ELV: I feel like Summerlin is an interesting community in the way that people are dining out there. There’s a group of regulars who kind of go through a rotation of restaurants in Summerlin. If a new one opens, existing restaurants kind of notice a little bit of a drop off from the regulars as they go and try it out. They add this new place into their rotation if they like it and if they hate it, they don’t go back. Have you seen that?
SC: You’re 100 percent right. You know, in a lot of ways it reminds me a lot of the Upper East Side in New York City where if you get into that mix, you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be great. This speaks to the overall culture that I’ve always tried to create in any of my restaurants that it’s always service forward. It’s gotta be service first and food is a followup to the service experience. Initially there’s always some hiccups in getting our footing when you first open a restaurant. I think people are forgiving of that if as long as the hospitality component is in place. If it isn’t there, that’s when you’ve got a lot of making up to do. We’ve made a lot of changes with the restaurant from when we first opened, really trying to identify that service culture. And I feel like we’re on a much better path than what we were.
ELV: I also have this generalization that if you’re really great at service, you probably want to be working on the Strip because that’s what you’re going to make the big bucks.
SC: That’s exactly right. I wouldn’t say it’s been hard. It’s definitely not easy, but you know, we’ve also been very fortunate that we have a lot of people from the very beginning who are still there. And I think the benefit is because they’re almost going to get that Strip experience, but you don’t have to deal with the traffic. It’s such a schlep to get to the Strip for a lot of locals, for people to go to the Strip with the amount of effort and traffic and parking and everything that goes along with it. So I feel like there’s a lot of benefits there.
ELV: What made you decide to come back to Las Vegas?
SC: Frankly, I feel like it’s a market I want to be in forever. If I could do more in Las Vegas, I would. If I could have five restaurants there, I would do them. New York City is home, but I don’t have a restaurant in New York City anymore. And I moved from New York City. I live in Scottsdale now.
It’s funny because my Instagram, my Twitter handles, my emails have Conant NYC and I’m just kinda stuck with it.
I lived in New York City for 27 years. I lived the majority of my life there. So I guess you could take the guy at in New York City, but you’ll never take that attitude away from me.
ELV: How did you end up with Red Rock Resort and Station Casinos?
SC: Michael Symon was doing a couple of things with them and he calls me one day and he said, “Listen, you know, these guys are great guys. What do you think about talking to them about an Italian restaurant?”
I talked to them because things just came to the end with Scarpetta. It was actually perfect timing. So it worked really fast.
They called me, I want to say it was September. They said, “When would you want to open?” And I said, “February.” I think they couldn’t believe that I wanted to turn it around so quickly. It’s because I had a team, I had concepts, and I had things I wanted to do and I was ready to. I’m of the mind where if you make a decision, go for it. That’s it. The decision’s made. Let’s go. There’s no waiting around.
ELV: You opened in Phoenix before you opened in Las Vegas, right?
SC: Yeah, it’ll be two years. We just celebrated our two years at Mora Italian.
ELV: Do you see anything you’d do differently? Mistakes you might’ve made in the past year?
SC: Mistakes over the past year? Yeah. Here in Las Vegas? Yeah. Well, I think that if I could change anything, I would have liked to have found my footing there better, quicker than we did. It was a little bit of a rough opening. It took us a while to get to where we are, but I’m happy that we’re finally there. Let’s put it that way.
ELV: Would you attribute it back to staffing?
SC: I think it’s a combination of things. I think staffing, to find who the right managers are, identifying in the right chef, having the right people in front of house, back of house staff. That’s not me pointing fingers. I take 100 percent responsibility for these things. Operating businesses is tough because on paper, it’s very simple. But then you deal with the emotions of staffing, my own emotions, the fact that I don’t live in Vegas. I get there once a month, and I’d like to spend more time there.
I think one of the missteps that I could really take to heart and that I really learned from is that you could have the best plan in place, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the culture in place. You’re never going to achieve the growth because the goals. In my heart of hearts believe that whatever your strategy is, the culture is going to get you there quickest. I think there’s a famous quote somewhere that culture trumps strategy any day of the week. And I will tell you from experience, I’ve had a lot of successful restaurants and I’ve had restaurants that are frankly not been successful at all. And I think the number one thing is the application of the culture that you create inside those confines.
ELV: How did you decide what you were going to put on the menu?
SC: If you look at that menu, it’s a series of greatest hits. Things that have worked in the past or maybe a little tweak on past menu items. [CEO of Station Casinos] Frank Fertitta, he is known for knowing food and we had a lot of conversations about what he wanted to see on that menu. And a couple of things are straight out of his wants and desires. I am of the mind that I live under your roof, I’m going to make sure that we adhere to the rules that we play.
ELV: So what did he want?
SC: There’s a dish with sausage and peas and a tomato sauce. He really wanted to have that or something very similar to that on the menu.
He wanted the veals that are on the menu. So you know, the veal parm, the veal Milanese. Those are things that he really wanted to make sure were there. So they’re there. They’re probably the two biggest sellers on the menu. So I get it.
Very few people know success the way Frank Fertitta does, with what he has achieved in the Fertitta family. So I’m going to put my ego aside and learn from that, quite frankly.
ELV: It’s kind of nice being older and established and you’ve been around the block to work with somebody you can take advice from like that.
SC: I can’t even tell you how thankful I am for the opportunity or the opportunities that I’ve been given. It’s not always been an easy path for me. For a lot of people, they’d say, “Well, Scott, what are you talking about? It’s easy. You know. You’ve got TV shows, you do this, you do that, you’ve got product, you’ve got your books.” None of that has come easy. Believe me when I tell you. I’m always appreciative of these opportunities. Frankly, I’ve toed the line to a certain extent to be sure that I’m getting the most out of those opportunities and I’m giving back as well.
ELV: It has to be really special for people to dine when you’re actually in the restaurant and you go around and touch tables, along with myriad other jobs that you’re doing while you’re there.
SC: I’ve worked in places in my career where I didn’t necessarily have some of the counterparts in the front of house. So I needed to touch tables. I need to spend time touching those table, developing relationships with the guests, or else I would have no guests inside the restaurant. So I developed that skill set, not because it’s my natural instinct, but because I needed to do it in order to make a living or keep my job at the time. I just developed an appreciation for it. And I feel like there’s always something old school about the chef/owner or the owner of the restaurant, whatever you want to call me, coming to the table. I wanted to let them know that I appreciate it.
ELV: So what some of your personal favorite dishes on the menu?
SC: You know, that spaghetti is always going to be the great love of my life. I think that the polenta also, with mushrooms and bacon. It’s just those two dishes that I think, I don’t care what I have on the menu. And I tell every single chef in every restaurant that I’ve ever had, I tell them the same thing. These have got to go on the opening menu. If at any point you can create something that sells better, take them off, but they have to sell better. It’s as simple as that. It’s bizarre to me those two dishes are best-sellers in every single restaurant I ever had. You know, the most simple thing — polenta with mushrooms, spaghetti with tomato. I think that they’re well executed. I think they’re very thoughtful dishes. I think they hit all sides of the palate. I think that there’s the expectation of what those dishes are, and both of those dishes will exceed the expectations of the guests.
ELV: So what do you think is next for you, maybe in Las Vegas and then otherwise?
SC: I’m always open for more stuff in Vegas to do another restaurant there. Honestly, I don’t have any plans to do more restaurants in the short term. I feel like I’ve got to take a break. It’s not easy as it used to be.
I just wrapped another season of Best Baker in America, a show that I host on the Food Network. It just got picked up for three more seasons. So I’ll be doing that.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve really taken to doing more television than the restaurant world because I still get to live that food life. I feel like the food culture is expanded so much and you could do a lot of different jobs within that genre of food culture.
• All Coverage of Masso Osteria [ELV]