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July 30, 2014

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Rolling the dice

Italian mainstay Ferraro’s gambles on move from longtime home to busier area

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Sam Morris

(R-L) Gino, Mimmo and Rosalba Ferraro own and operate Ferraro’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, which opens within the next few weeks at Paradise Road and Harmon Avenue.

On any given night at Ferraro's, 40 plates of the restaurant's signature fork-tender osso bucco will leave chef Mimmo Ferraro's kitchen. The braised veal shank is the elegant Italian restaurant's signature dish, a recipe that's been prepared in the same way inside the neighborhood eatery on Flamingo by Mimmo and his father, owner Gino Ferraro, for 17 years.

This month, however, the kitchen on Flamingo went dark. The local landmark has packed its pots, pans and knives and moved a few miles away, to a space at the corner of Paradise and Harmon directly across from the Hard Rock Hotel (former home to Rainbow Bar & Grill). The new Ferraro's Restaurant and Wine Bar should soft-open by year's end, with a grand opening scheduled for the last week of January.

For a neighborhood favorite, switching from west of the Strip to just east of it is a big gamble, but Mimmo, Gino and Gino's wife, Rosalba, are betting on a bigger, sleeker, sexier Ferraro's.

The Ferraros' story starts well before they opened the restaurant on Flamingo Road in 1992. Gino was born in Calabria, Italy, and spent the first years of his life there, moving to Syracuse, New York, with his parents and five siblings; he met Rosalba there in junior high.

"Imagine that," Gino said, marveling at his wife sitting beside him at a central table.

When Gino was 21, he and his young bride packed up and moved to Las Vegas.

At first, the move was hard. Gino had owned a coffee shop in Syracuse, which he left in the care of a family member.

Rosalba said they wanted to go back their first year in Vegas, but the coffee shop was poorly managed in their absence and was left for dead.

"Home is where you make it," Rosalba sighs.

The Ferraros made it Vegas. In 1983, they opened a deli at the corner of Highland and Spring Mountain. They sold Italian products like olives and cheeses, prepared sandwiches and made pastas and breads from scratch. Soon Ferraro's Restaurant and Deli moved to a larger location and, with Rosalba in the kitchen, the deli began to shrink. In 1988, the entire space was converted into a restaurant and in 1992 that restaurant moved to the cozy space on Flamingo.

"The rest is all history," Gino smiles. "We've done very well here."

The Ferraros have done very well. Their restaurant has focused on authentic Italian food prepared the same way it's made in Italy. Homemade pasta. No pre-made sauces. Of the 60 items on the menu, "59 items are made fresh when you order," Gino bragged. The one that isn't? The osso bucco. It takes time to make meat that melts in your mouth that easily.

Ferraro's authenticity can also come across as obstinance. Mimmo talks about learning to blend Asian and Italian flavors during his culinary studies at the California Culinary Academy, but when asked if a curried minestrone soup or sake-glazed lamb chop will ever make it onto the Ferraro's menu, he offers a wry smile.

"No," he says pointing at his father. "I refuse to change recipes," Gino said. "A lot of restaurants Americanize Italian food. Have you ever seen a meatball in Italy?"

You can get a meatball at Ferraro's, as well as familiar dishes like lasagna ($22), spaghettini carbonara ($20) and veal piccata ($26), but you'll also find less ubiquitous Italian fare on the menu. Grilled quail ($24) comes with polenta and is topped with roasted mushrooms, while Pappardelle Mimmo ($39) is loaded with lobster, scallops, asparagus, sage and seasonal truffles. Tripe in a spicy Calabrian-style tomato sauce ($24) almost seems like a point of pride—the antithesis of Olive Garden's all-you-eat sanitized Italian. At the bottom of the menu, a note reminds patrons to trust the kitchen: "The Ferraro Family has created a unique and extensive menu to complement great palates. We ask you not to alter our menu—PLEASE!!!" Gino's original note was longer and more strongly worded.

But that's part of the fun of Ferraro's. Dining in the Flamingo restaurant, you felt like you'd stepped into an Italian family's mostly functional, always-delicious home. Rosalba is sweet and soft-spoken; in his own domain, Gino is a mercurial celebrity. The staff jokingly calls him "the witch," because the 55-year-old owner always seems to know when a plate is being served wrong. For customers, he is at the heart of the Ferraro's experience. Waving to regulars as they walk out the door and stopping to check on favorite guests, Gino is an old-school restaurateur, at once boss, host and friendly neighbor.

"When people come through that door they want to see me," he said.

It's one of the reasons Ferraro's is moving, rather than expanding. While the new space is drastically larger than current restaurant — 9,000 square-feet with a 2,000-square-foot outdoor patio — there will still be only one Ferraro's in the Valley, a decision reached after years of costly trials and frustrations.

Since launching their Flamingo location, the Ferraros have opened and closed three other restaurants around town. There was the Stratosphere location, a fine-dining restaurant that only lasted a few months. After sinking $1.6 million into the restaurant, Gino got bought out for $42,000 when the Stratosphere filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"Three cents on the dollar," he scowled.

Next came the Summerlin branch, another flop that the family blames on suburban diners' affinity for chain restaurants — and the Ferraros spreading themselves too thin. A Henderson location at the corner of Green Valley and Sunset came and went, too, closing in 2002 after 9/11 sent the Valley's profits plummeting.

Before booking reservations, Rosalba recalls, guests used to call the different restaurants to see where Gino would be working.

"If Gino wasn't there, it wasn't Ferraro's," she says.

Now, after nearly a year of planning, all the Ferraros are moving once again.

"The economy has made it a very good time for us to move," Gino said. "We got a very good deal on the space."

But "if you build it, they will come" prophesizing doesn't always work in the restaurant industry.

"This has always been our anchor," Gino acknowledged of the space on Flamingo. But, "We need to go where the tourists are," he states bluntly.

The Ferraros are hoping the space across from the Hard Rock will be close enough. With the menu remaining about 80 percent the same and an expanded wine program that will include 10,000 bottles of Italian and California wines housed in a 36-foot wine cellar, the Ferraros promise to maintain most of the things their loyal customers love, while also actively courting younger diners and casino industry employees with a late-night menu based around Italian small plates called antipastini.

But it's the intangibles that will truly determine whether the new Ferraro's Restaurant and Wine Bar succeeds — whether the warm atmosphere and sense of familial intimacy that have made the restaurant a neighborhood favorite can translate into a larger, more modern space a few miles away from its fans. It's a big roll of the dice, and Gino, sipping on a glass of red wine and surveying his two-room empire, knows that.

"This is a huge move for us. If this doesn't work, I have to go back to Calabria."

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