The same people who rolled their eyes when I grew nostalgic for Italian Gardens thought I had lost my mind completely when I started fretting over news that another Italian restaurant -- Bugatti's at the Ameristar Casino -- was scheduled for a big change. "You must be joking," said one food snob who wouldn't be caught dead dining at one of the boats. "It couldn't be a real restaurant."
The enormous success of the all-you-can-eat buffets at the city's four casinos seems to overshadow "fancy" dining rooms such as Farraday's at the Isle of Capri (which is stuck in a remote corner like an afterthought) and The Journey Wood-Fired Steaks at the Argosy. Too bad, because I like both of those restaurants and was particularly fond of the Ameristar's faux trattoria, formerly known as Bugatti's Little Italy Café.
The dinner-only restaurant is now called Bugatti's Ristorante & Café, which doesn't sound like much of a change until you know what the casino's owner had planned to do to the dining room. The casino brass, worrying that patrons were intimidated by the $30-a-person average check, decided to scale down the menu, do away with the tablecloths and generally make the place feel less hoity-toity. Maybe a little bit more like Italian Gardens (or the Olive Garden).
"The original plan was to make Bugatti's more accessible," says the restaurant's manager, Jocelyn Sanders. "We decided not to downscale the restaurant but to make it more attractive."
The casino closed the space for two months over the winter, spiffing up the main dining room with vibrant red carpet and freshly upholstered banquettes and replacing the whirling ceiling fans with amber light fixtures as big as roulette wheels. The result is a brighter, more inviting dining room (unlike the smaller, darker, smoke-friendly dining area that adjoins it, which is as solemn as a library). The tablecloths stayed off, but there's new china.
The menu changed long before the physical makeover. Out went less-popular dishes, such as osso buco and cioppino, in favor of a handful of new items. The average check still hovers between $25 and $30 a person, but the experience is so pleasant and the food is so good that it's well worth it. My friend Yvette, who says she associates the word casino with "cigarette smoke, clanging machines and really rude people," was startled by the polished style of Bugatti's. She had seemed wary as we walked past the noisy saloon and the chaotic crowd in front of the Horizon Buffet (where the line snaked around the main hall), but once we reached Bugatti's, the relatively quiet room seemed like an oasis.
"It's so nice," she whispered. "It's not like eating in a casino."
But gambling revenues make a place like Bugatti's possible. In addition to its exceptionally attentive service and visually stylish meals, the restaurant pays attention to details: chilled salad plates and forks and even a relish plate.
Well, sort of a relish plate. Before Yvette, Bob and I had a chance to unfurl our napkins, a server swept over with a narrow dish of green Sicilian olives stuffed with garlic, almonds and roasted peppers. "What a treat," Yvette said as she popped one into her mouth. "You don't see olive service anymore."
You don't often get freshly baked bread, either, but Bugatti's was so good that Bob and Yvette nearly ruined their appetites before the appetizers arrived. But what appetizers! Bob couldn't get over the generous mound of sautéed jumbo lump crab atop crispy potato cakes. "It's incredible," he raved. Yvette and I shared a plate of superb ravioli stuffed with a rich lobster paste and blanketed in a topaz-colored brandied-cream sauce. Each square pillow was as large as a billfold.
The three of us shared Bugatti's version of a chopped salad, one of the best I've eaten in a long time: finely chopped romaine, grilled chicken, salami, tomatoes, mushrooms, garbanzo beans and provolone cheese. It's not a cheap salad, but it's generous enough to share. So are the six pizzas, each baked on a cracker-thin crust and heaped with fresh milky mozzarella. I could easily have made a meal of the Pizza Rustica, a spicy number topped with salty prosciutto, garlic, chiles, capers, olives and basil.
Yvette dined regally on that night's risotto del giorno, cooked in a lemon-flavored broth with seared shrimp, spinach and crabmeat. That crabmeat also plays an essential role in one of the newer pasta additions, ear-shaped orecchiette in garlic butter with crab, shrimp and clams -- none of which lasted long after arriving in front of me. Another new offering is the chicken carciofi, a gorgeously plump breast lightly battered and pan-seared and served on braised greens drenched in a fragrant broth of black currant, white wine and artichoke.
We were too stuffed to contemplate dessert -- or gambling -- on that outing. But I indulged in both on my next visit, this time with Carol Ann, an interior designer who admired the room's "warm glow" and the grand scale of the fake fireplace dominating the far wall. "There's a 1950s quality to the room," she decided after hearing all the big names from that era -- Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Kay Starr -- come over the speakers. "It's like being in Vegas back in its heyday."
I was having my own heyday with the restaurant's signature pasta, a bowl of penne tossed in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce with roasted chicken, walnuts and sliced purple grapes. Carol Ann went for the lighter branzino en brodo. The flaky hunk of sea bass on a bed of sautéed spinach and fennel required extra work from our server, the exceptionally accommodating Matthew Richardson, who used a French coffee press filled with a steaming broth of fish stock, carrots, shallots, onion and chard with which to bathe the bass.
"It's out of this world," Carol Ann said of the lovely, sophisticated dish. "Can you believe we're eating this well in a casino?"
Why do casino restaurants have such a bad rap, anyway? In Las Vegas, nearly all of the big-name gambling palaces have glamorous dining rooms operated by celebrity chefs. In Kansas City, the nicer establishments seem tarnished by their locations within those raucous and smoky dens of high-rolling sin.
I began to feel especially lucky after choosing the perfect dessert. The dolci del cardinale was a layered confection of crushed biscotti, frozen almond meringue and coffee liqueur. "It's the sweet of the cardinal," said Carol Ann, making a mental note to go to Mass the next morning. "I wonder if eating it brings good luck when you're gambling."
I wish I'd done better on the slots we played afterward, but who needs good luck? Eating well is blessing enough.