The Casino Compromise
Posted on August 28th, 2017
When she wants to gamble, but you want to eat well
BY MARK GILLESPIE
You get along fairly well with your fiancée except for a few little things. For one, she likes to go to the casino. To keep yourself occupied on weekend trips to Niagara Falls, you bring books and a pair of walking shoes. You wonder, what is the draw? She says she likes the lights and sounds, the excitement of the floor, the possibility of the big win. You call it a cash drain on people who don’t understand statistics. But the money is secondary, she says. Not everything in life has to provide return on investment. Fair enough.
She recommends a weekend at del Lago, a new resort and casino near Waterloo that aims to bring a little Vegas glitz to the sleepy farmlands north of the Finger Lakes. Your first question: what are the restaurants like? You head to Google and find out there’s a place called Portico by Fabio Viviani. The name sounds vaguely familiar. Turns out you saw him on Top Chef: All Stars several years ago. Since then, he’s parlayed his fame into a series of restaurants in downtown metros and the Los Angeles International Airport. He’s also published four cookbooks.
You learn that Portico isn’t his first small-town foray. His Café Firenze, in Ventura County, California, helped launch his career in America. He makes a point of supporting local farms and using fresh ingredients to create menus that draw from his roots as a home cook and restaurant worker in Italy. The menu at Portico is upscale but accessible, pitched toward middle-class vacationers. The pricing is a little high but not more than you’d be willing to pay for a fancy meal in Rochester. OK let’s go, you tell her. Let’s spend the weekend at the casino.
You step inside from the bright, sunlit parking lot. It takes a second for your eyes to adjust, but her attention is already darting around the room, taking in the brand-new slot machines, the blackjack tables, the Monte Carlo games. What are we going to do first, says her expression. In spite of yourself, you feel a quickening of your pulse as well. First, you insist, let’s eat. Don’t want to gamble on an empty stomach.
The casino is cavernous. It takes a few minutes to walk to Portico, which turns out to be a calm oasis. The interior is modern, with lots of leather and marble, though there are rustic touches such as wooden crates stamped with Italian-branded products. A gigantic chandelier made of handblown glass globes creates a dramatic sense of scale. You’re seated near a bright wall of windows next to an imposing stone fireplace.
For starters, you suggest sharing the lobster and avocado salad ($17), a habit you picked up when you wanted a nice meal on a budget. It’s cheaper than an entrée, and the kitchen does all the work removing the shell. This salad is plenty for two, with lots of good shellfish chunks and a bittersweet grapefruit vinaigrette dressing, but there’s nothing quite like a good charcuterie. This one ($20) arrives on a rustic farmhouse serving board with paper-thin slices of prosciutto and soppressata along with a nice veiny blue cheese.
Portico is the kind of place where you first experience presentation out of the corner of your eye. You catch glimpses of thick steaks the size of baseball mitts or golden brown chickens like little Thanksgiving birds with sprigs of rosemary. The waitress across the room has a towel over her hands, and she’s vigorously shaking something. Your fiancée asks your waiter, “what the heck is that?”
Turns out it’s the rigatoni carbonara ($16) tossed in a mason jar. Usually, carbonara is made with spaghetti with crisp pancetta or regular old bacon all tossed with a raw egg. It’s tasty, but usually a little dry. Viviani’s version is closer to American mac and cheese, with tube-shaped pasta and a fresco style of pecorino cheese that’s creamier than the more traditional crumbly parmigiano. She orders Viviani’s signature house white wine ($9), a sweet, fruity blend of California and German styles.
Her own jar of noodles and brussels sprouts spills out onto her dish in an imposing pile—more than enough food for two. But you noticed an indulgence of your own, a veal milanese ($34) that dwarfed the bed of arugula sweetly wilting from the heat of the fried breadcrumbs that coat the meat. To drink, you have the Edna Valley Pinot Noir ($10), which is both earthly and floral, intensifying the richness of the beef. Each time you slice across the cutlet, and the juices run out, mingling with the greens, pepperoncini, and almonds on top. You swap bites with your fiancée, each barely making it through half the meal before happily groaning as you take a break.
Dessert? Why stop now? However, your pace has slackened considerably. You split a limoncello cake ($10), or half of one because you’re finally out of steam. Good thing there’s a refrigerator in the room.
The meal has put you in such a good mood that you try one of the slot machines. Lose. Try it again. Lose again. Try a third time and bam! You’ve almost won back the price of dinner. Will you quit while you’re ahead?