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Feeding Your Face on Vacation in the Silver State

“I used to make a beautiful braciole…”—Maria “Mama” Zoia Perry, 95.

I recently returned to vegetarianism—not super strict, seafood allowed, the occasional cheat—after a 15 year glut of barbecued ribs, cheeseburgers and fried chicken, often as late as 11 p.m.

Diet and its exacting drill sergeant—exercise—have long been the last outposts of self-preservation. I long ago gave up this and shortly thereafter forsook that. But at 54, with a penchant for Pop Tarts and gas station hot dogs along with an aversion to vegetables, this new asceticism didn’t come a moment too soon.

It preceded by a fortnight a 4th of July road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Carson City with Phoebe, whose father said upon introducing us at a Spanish restaurant, “If you wanna keep her happy, feed her…”

Though we’d dare not claim the culinary acumen of the Trillins—Calvin and his late, beloved wife, the Alice of Alice Let’s Eat fame—Phoebe and I enjoyed several fine meals and several more good ones over five days and more than 1,200 miles. We also ate some crap on the road. This is a diary of our week of Independence Day adventures from the south end of Nevada to the north and back again by way of California.

Our first night was at the Resort on Mount Charleston—a lodge-themed hotel, complete with stuffed black bear—about 40 minutes up U.S. Route 95 from downtown Vegas.

The 30-year-old inn sits about halfway up the mountain.

The “resort” (there is a family of ducks and antique pinball machines but no swimming pool) is favored by locals for day-tripping because temperatures on the mountain are often 20 to 30 degrees cooler than down on the strip.

Of the 61 rooms, we were given the “King Suite,” which runs between $179 and $229 a night depending on the season. Rates are lower from March to Memorial Day—the “mud season”—and rise in the heart of winter when folks come to ski.

“We are the great local escape from the flashing lights, the traffic and the old lady with the oxygen tank crossing the street to get into the casino,” said Marc Nelson, the 44-year-old general manager. “When it’s 105 or higher in the city, its gold for us.”

How different is it up on the mountainside compared to the scene down on Dean Martin Boulevard?

“In the fall when the leaves are changing up here, people in the casinos don’t even realize it,” said Nelson, a native Detroiter who brought along his love for Tigers baseball. “In the wintertime we have snowball fights on the parking lot.”

In the summer, hikers and bikers pass burros and coyotes on the hillsides and birdwatchers witness hummingbirds and enough butterflies to keep Nabakov busy for a month of Sundays. When the snows come, the Resort at Mount Charleston is somewhat reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, which the staff jokes about.

References to the 1980 Kubrick film come around, said Nelson, “When there’s four feet of snow and the power flickers.”

Most folks in the dining room, however, had a little more meat on their bones than poor Shelley “Olive Oyl” Duvall and the menu was a heavyweight challenge to my fledgling change of diet.

Mountain meat stew with bison & wild boar at $9.95 a bowl!

Half-pound burgers of Kobe beef!

Racks of ribs, a $16.95 buffalo burger with bacon, Southern fried chicken and more steak than a Chicago stockyard.

They boasted “Maryland crab cakes” for $14 but I never eat crab west of Ashburton Street. It came with a “house remoulade.”

Even Morris Martick—may he rest in cantankerous and culinary peace—wouldn’t do that to a crab cake.

So we shared a white pizza with green Spanish olives stuff with pimiento and Phoebe ate the grilled chicken out of a spinach salad, leaving me a feast of strawberries, blueberries, cucumber, tomato, and feta cheese.

All in all—with no alcohol or dessert—$32 and a good night’s sleep in the King Suite, whose balcony overlooked what was once a nine-hole golf course slowly being reclaimed by the mountain.

Next up: Saturday night in Sin City for a couple of bookworms who don’t drink and don’t gamble and aren’t crazy about crowds.

Phoebe chose an old Vegas standby called the Bootlegger with scores of autographed 8x10 glossies on wall (Steve and Eydie, Herr Danke Schoen, and certainly the King somewhere among the frames) and a father/daughter piano and torch song duo for our dining entertainment.

Like Matthew's in Highlandtown or the sorely missed DeNitti in Baltimore’s Little Italy, the Bootlegger has a long history stretching back to the old country.

It was named for patriarch Luigi Zoia who left Padua and landed on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls about the time Teddy Roosevelt was president. Luigi made homemade wine (what true Italian didn’t?) at the boarding house he ran with wife Maria during the Prohibition against booze on the other side of the great cataract.

Unlike the legends of Crabtown pizza (to which we must add Skip Sullivan’s fabled Colossus Pizza on Furnace Branch Road in Glen Burnie), the Bootlegger claims Marlene Dietrich [1901-1992] as a customer.

The cabaret legend would come in to pick up her own pizza in the mid-1950s when she was making $30,000 a week at the Sahara and the Bootlegger was a pizza pie joint owned by Al and Maria Perry called the Venetian.

At the Bootlegger, now on Las Vegas Boulevard near the Mandalay Bay casino, Phoebe got a deep dish of clams and linguini—$16.95—and I ordered grilled swordfish, which in Italian goes by the operatic pesce spade griglia.

A beautiful piece of fish, the filet came on a bed of spinach and whole garlic cloves sautéed with olive oil and onion. It cost $20.95. Below the bed of spinach—hiding like a Baltimore bad guy under his mother’s skirts—a carpet of white beans made me yearn for a little pasta fagiole like my Aunt Meeley Adornato makes.

Pasta “fazool” was one of many Italian dishes I talked about with matriarch Maria Perry. The daughter of the original “bootlegger,” she came to Vegas with husband Al and baby Lorraine in 1944.

“Mama” still comes to the restaurant each week for Sunday supper. Despite some eye trouble, she lives on her own and is adamant that she can still drive (though family members respectfully disagree.) A widow after seven decades of marriage to Albert Perry, Mama worked the kitchen until age 80. She lives on her own.

Chef Agostino Sandoval is the guardian of Zoia treasures handed down through the generations.

“They’re all my recipes and we’re still cooking the same old way,” she said. “I used to make a medium-thick pasta fagiole all the time. But now people really want the minestrone. They stopped making the wedding soup after I retired.”

The conversation turned to a meat roll called braciole, which like pasta fagiole is an Italian delicacy found more on kitchen tables than restaurant menus.

”When I was still in the kitchen,” she said of the Bootlegger’s various incarnations, “I made a beautiful braciole. We put it on the menu as a special.”

Like Charlie Eckman liked to say, it’s a simple game.

“You lay out your steak and flatten it,” said Mama. “Make up a tasty bread crumb dressing, roll it up, bake it awhile and then put it in the sauce.”

When I was growing up, my mother added a little ham and sliced boiled egg to the roll.

I miss braciole—with or without the egg—but in Vegas I made sure not to miss dessert.

We ended the night in the bar at Bouchon Bistro, a bit of Francophile fantasy in the desert that took us to the 10th floor of the Venetian Hotel and Phoebe back to the autumn of 2003 in Paris. She made that journey with her father, Julian S. Stein, Jr., who passed away a few weeks before our Nevada road trip.

“I stayed with Dad at the Hotel Le Relais Medicis and ate the best dessert of my life (a chocolate tart) at Closierie Des Lilas,” she said.

That dessert was a chocolate tart and she tried to capture the memory with a Bouchon perfitorole. I had a crème caramel and pretended it was flan from the long-gone Corral’s on South Broadway in Fells Point while Phoebe talked about Paris.

Sense and memory are funny things. Smell transports you to lost worlds like little else. But things rarely taste as good as you remember.

Back in 2003, when Julian was a mere 84, Phoebe was determined to take her father to every arrondissements in Paris he’d yet to see in a long lifetime of visiting France. There are 20 in all and divide the City of Lights into distinct areas.

“I know he’d seen a lot of them but not all, I just wanted to take him to at least one he’d never visited,” said Phoebe, spooning in the puff pastry with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. “I succeeded by taking him to number 13—Gobelins.”

On the Left Bank of the Seine, Gobelins is primarily a residential area and home to the National Library and the city’s Chinatown.

Said Phoebe before we wandered the Venetian’s vast hallways and plopped on a finely upholstered sofa to watch the gangs of ridiculously dressed young men follow gangs of barely dressed young women: “Dad and I ate at a restaurant filled with local bureaucrats.”

It sounded a bit like Werner’s [1950-to-2011] in good old Baltimore.

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