With touches of coastal Italy, and a menu of light and flavorful pasta, chef Shawn McClain hopes that visitors will find his new restaurant “special.” McClain’s restaurant Balla Italian Soul celebrated its grand opening inside its new home at the Sahara Las Vegas on November 10. The James Beard Award-winning chef behind the now-closed Sage at Aria debuted Balla Italian Soul last month, following weeks of equipment delays that pushed and pulled at an opening date. During the grand opening, McClain reflected on the impact of opening inside the Las Vegas Strip casino, in the space next to José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat.
“We just thought Balla was a great fit,” says McClain. “Being next to José is awesome. And being part of that lineup — and really seeing what the north Strip has become. With Resorts World opening and Fontainebleau, soon to open, it’s really fun.” McClain’s new restaurant is visible from Las Vegas Boulevard, where the bright orange letters of “Balla” are affixed to the casino’s exterior. Inside the restaurant, a beautiful domed and tiled ceiling floats over a small dining room, decorated with small trees and twinkling fairy lights. Windows look out over the Strip while a woman on a Vespa looks out over the dining room from a back-lit picture on the rear wall. The cocktail bar stretches across the long and narrow dining room, stocked with all the fixings for Aperol spritzes, but also spritzes with rosemary or lime gelato.
The food is decidedly flavorful, but not heavy. Sarah Camarota of the restaurant’s partner, McClain Camarota Hospitality Group, describes the pasta dishes as light and “feel-good” — good for pairing with any of the bar’s spritzes. Take the casarecce — a dish of chewy noodles in a tangy sauce brimming with tomatoes, garlic, and Calabrian pepper. Roman-style pizzas, like the Gotham with cured meats, pomodoro, and fennel pollen draw on the crust recipes that McClain developed when he was running Five50 Pizza Bar, also at Aria.
“When we thought about the tenets and foundations of what we’d like to cook, looking at Italian through that lens, we really gravitated toward fresh, bright, vibrant, citrusy, maybe even a little spicy, verses that heavier style,” says McClain. “Through my years at Sage and Chicago and Detroit, it’s really about the regional area of the farms and microclimates of Southern California, which are all great things we have available to us here.”
Other menu highlights include wood-fired mains like a prime bone-in rib-eye with roasted garlic and a lemony sea bream with capers. Squid ink shells are tossed with puttanesca, mint, and squid and the beet salad is mildly sweet, with grapefruit and toasted hazelnuts. The cocktail menu of negronis and spritzes expands into an Italian-forward wine list and a chocolate and hazelnut tart makes it worth staying for dessert.
McClain’s beloved farm-to-table restaurant Sage closed in 2020 after a ten-year run. “It’s hard to close doors on a huge part of your life and inspirations and all the dishes we cooked,” says McClain. “Italian cuisine has permeated my philosophy and techniques for so long. Ultimately, my goal is for people to come to Balla and be like ‘you know, it’s not Sage, but it was special.’ And when people talked about special dinners at Sage, I want them to have those conversations about Balla as well.”
Balla Italian Soul is open Wednesday through Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.