Shawn McClain is one of my favorite chefs in Las Vegas. The food at his Aria restaurant Sage is as delicious as the restaurant is beautiful, making it one of my favorite places to celebrate special occasions. So when I heard he was opening a second restaurant in the same hotel, I was excited. When I learned it would a pizza place, however, my attention began to wane.
It’s not that I have anything against fine-dining chefs offering more accessible, affordable cuisine. And celebrity chefs have been putting gourmet spins on pizza for decades. But serious pizza places have lately been popping up across the valley as quickly as burger restaurants and gastropubs, and I just couldn’t get excited about another. Nonetheless, I attended a media lunch at the restaurant shortly after it opened (something I never do if I anticipate reviewing a place in this column), and was impressed enough to return a few times on my own. After my private visits, I still like the place a lot.
Despite being located in an awkwardly shaped space between the poker room and the sports book, Five50 is a beautifully designed modern room that gives little hint of its neighbors. To accomplish that, the music can sometimes be a little loud — which my parents found annoying when I dined there with them, but which doesn’t bother me. The staff is incredibly professional and friendly, with McClain utilizing many from his team at Sage in both the front and back of the house.
McClain describes the style of his pizza as a cross between a classic thin-crust Neapolitan pizza and a New York street pizza. (The restaurant’s name is a reference to the 550-degree temperature of his ovens.) For my money, it’s a lot closer to the former than the latter, but the crust is a bit chewier and more flavorful than a lot of Neapolitan pies.
As you’d expect, you can build your own pie ($21 plus $2-$4 per topping). But you really should check out one of the eight signature pizzas. They include exotic options such as the Sicilian (pancetta, broccoli rabe, peppers and white anchovies for $26), the forager (white sauce, mushrooms, bacon, Brussels sprouts and whipped ricotta for $25) and the North Beach (clams, smoked mozzarella, sweet onions and oregano for $28), as well as simpler margherita ($24) and blanca ($27) pizzas. Of the ones I’ve tried, my favorite is the Gotham (pepperoni, sausage, salami, mozzarella and grana padano for $28).
Unlike most gourmet pizza places, Five50 does sell slices — kind of. At the front of the restaurant is a slice operation, where four varieties are offered as takeout for $5.50 apiece. On the bright side, thanks to the high volume, they’re fresh and delicious. The problem is, when I asked if I could eat them at one of the adjacent bars (one in the restaurant and the other at the sports book), I was instead directed to a nearby collection of four high-top tables where customers can eat standing up. The other downside to the slice bar is that it generally only offers the most conservative of the signature pies. If you want one of the more creative ones, you’ll probably have to dine in and order a whole pie.
If you do, you’ll get more than pizza. You’ll also find a nice selection of cheeses and cured meats ($6 and up), four gourmet pastas ($18-$24) and small snacks, such as warm ricotta ($6), marinated olives ($5) and pork rinds ($6) on both the lunch and dinner menus. Luncthime offerings also include an assortment of sandwiches ($13-$16). And the dinner menu features appetizers such as wood-fired clams with sausage and potatoes in brown ale ($17), pepperoni arancini ($12), octopus crostini ($13). All of the ingredients are top-of-the-line, and you can accompany your meal with one of their 45 craft beers, four ciders or 44 wines.
No meal at Five50 would be complete without sampling the shaved pork belly “porchetta” ($15). The fatty pieces of pork are sliced so thin they truly seem to melt in your mouth, and they’re wonderfully accented with grilled peaches and black garlic. This is a dish that would fit in just fine at any fine dining restaurant.
Since its opening, Aria has boasted one of the best collections of fine-dining restaurants in town. With Five50, Shawn McClain has now given visitors a casual option that’s just as good.
Five50 Pizza, Aria, 3730 Las Vegas Boulevard South, 877-230-2742. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.