Las Vegas Chef Conjuring Coastal Flavors in the Desert
In ancient Italy, la strega (“the witch”) lived to preserve and honor her regional traditions. In modern day Las Vegas, Gina Marinelli lives to satiate her local clientele at the popular La Strega restaurant.
The Executive Chef and Managing Partner says, “The witches took care of the neighborhood… that’s how we like to look at it. We cook for our guests. We take care of them. We bring them in our home. And that’s what La Strega really means.”
Unafraid to be called a witch in the kitchen, the chef calls her staff her coven. And she’s come to embrace her feminine side.
“Everybody thinks of Italian food as very dark, very heavy, and it’s very masculine. When I see Italy, I think of Sophia Loren… it has that romantic side to it.”
Marinelli remembers a time when she frowned upon being referred to as a “female chef” as if it meant someone less capable. Now she realizes that being a strong woman at the helm, she’s creating a safe place for everyone. The former line cook is okay with cooks having a few wicked days. And she feels empowered developing future culinary leaders.
“We are all individuals here. We’re almost gender blind. I love watching younger women in their early twenties come in and just really blossom.”
The chefs who helped her growth in the kitchen, including James Beard award-winning chef Scott Conant (Marinelli worked for him at former D.O.C.G. Enoteca), stoked her interest in Italian cuisine. But truly, it was multiple travels to the boot-shaped country that accelerated her passion. She knew when she commanded her own restaurant, she’d spend her days conjuring the coastal flavors of Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast.
“Italian food – the best way to do it is to get great ingredients, respect them, and treat them with love.”
For La Strega’s “Stuffed Whole Fish” dish, the Italian American chef prepares it with “the best olive oil” and the “nicest capers” and lemons, fills it with fresh herbs, and “cooks it nice and slow.”
“It’s just that simplicity. It warms your heart. You don’t need anything else. You have this fish and a great glass of wine. And you’re there.”
Even during this unprecedented time, when many of us in the hospitality community are enduring the sting of less revenue, the pain of fewer guests, and the uncertainty of our livelihood, Marinelli remains steadfast in her dream. She’s searing, poaching, and roasting to transport us to a serene place.
“I can see the nets. I can hear the water. I can feel it. And that’s what brings me here everyday. That’s what makes us want to cook for everybody to get that feeling of that coastal Italian in the middle of the desert.”
It’s a lot “like music,” Marinelli quips with a warm laugh, “You hear a song. And it takes you somewhere.”
Take it further. This food is magic on a plate. No broom or spells necessary.
As of May 20, 2020, La Strega Las Vegas is offering a special curbside pick-up menu. Hours are Wednesday – Saturday 2pm-7pm (schedule pick-up time at 702-722-2099).