“Food is our Frank Sinatra.”
That’s how Don Carano liked to describe one of the chief attractions of the Eldorado Resort Casino, the original property in his gaming empire.
There was pride in this statement, of course, but also a certain plucky resolve: that casino dining in Reno could be more than chops and cheap buffets, that tables and slots and free booze weren’t the only reasons to head downtown, that ravioli could be sublime.
When he died Oct. 3 at 85, Carano’s holdings encompassed properties in 10 states, but it was through the Eldorado that his love of good food most influenced how Reno eats today.
CELEBRATION OF LIFE FOR DON CARANO
When: Beginning 4:30 p.m. Oct. 11
Where: Silver Legacy Resort Casino, Grande Exposition Hall, 407 N. Virginia St.
Details: Open to the public
Long before local vodka and (a glut of?) local craft breweries, decades before the restaurant scrum of Midtown, years before Reno was being spoken of, food-wise, as the next Portland, Carano’s commitment to quality dining helped train a generation of culinary professionals and helped set the table for Reno’s flourishing food and drink scene today.
“The Eldorado was definitely setting the benchmarks for our culinary fabric to move forward in Reno — no doubt about that,” said Joel Giandalia, a longtime local restaurateur who is now the director of beverage and food for Renaissance Reno Downtown Hotel.
In other words, Don Carano helped make Campo possible.
“My dad’s love is food,” said Gregg Carano, one of Don Carano’s four sons, while speaking with the Reno Gazette-Journal several years ago. “Growing up, Sunday nights, he was always cooking.”
That love had been mixed into the foundation when Don Carano and business partner Jerry Poncia opened the Eldorado in 1973 in downtown Reno.
“He believed in downtown,” said Warren Lerude, a lifelong friend and former RGJ editor and publisher.
La Strada, a tribute to the Carano clan’s Italian roots, was among the property’s early restaurants, debuting in 1978. From the start, authenticity was essential.
Trips were made to Italy to purchase equipment for the pasta still made from scratch in the pasta shop. Chefs were recruited from the motherland. And, moving beyond red-check tablecloth clichés, the menu mainly featured Northern Italian dishes in keeping with Carano’s Genovese heritage.
Today, La Strada remains the Eldorado’s flagship restaurant, overseen by chef de cuisine Massimo Riggio and Eldorado executive chef Ivano Centemeri, who first cooked with Riggio 20 years ago at the Eldorado.
La Strada also remains Reno’s most skilled purveyor of pasta, and aspiring Reno cooks and chefs could do far, far worse than a stint in the shop and kitchen to learn the craft of noodles.
Riggio and Centemeri belong to a cohort of Eldorado alumni who have spread across the Reno culinary landscape, bringing with them the standards espoused by the late patriarch.
Riggio, after his first stint at the property in the 1990s, left for several years to open his own spot, then work at a number of local restaurants. Likewise, Centemeri bid goodbye to open the esteemed La Vecchia (now on Skyline Drive) before returning (recruited, once again, by the food loving Caranos).
To name just a few other alumni: Joel Giandalia, the Renaissance Reno executive; Jakon Tolhurst, now executive chef at Creekside Entertainment; Quoc Nguyen, Jazmine chef-owner who prepared the best Chinese food ever served in Reno at the Eldorado’s Golden Fortune; David Tran, a former Jazmine owner and now a proprietor of Siu Korean BBQ; and Troy Cannan, chef and co-owner of LuLou’s Restaurant and Kauboi Izakaya.
By the bay
Nearly 30 years ago, Cannan, a Nevada native, came aboard the Eldorado as a sauté cook at the old Vintage restaurant; after three months, he was promoted to chef de cuisine.
In late 1996, Cannan became the chef of the Eldorado’s newly opened Bistro Roxy (now Roxy), with its seven dining rooms, bar and lounge in seven different European architectural styles.
Along the way, the chef did “stages,” or cooking internships, at famed Boulevard and other restaurants in San Francisco.
“I told Don, ‘I need to learn more, so I need to do that outside of Reno,’” Cannan said. “He paid for me to be outside of Reno, to do stages in San Francisco, and I hoped I repaid him with the best food in Reno when I got back.”
From Carano himself, Cannan said he learned, among other things, about the importance of “quality products and sourcing the best products. It wasn’t just what the purveyor would send — it had to match his quality standards to get into the kitchen.”
‘A leg up’
In 1999, Cannan left the Eldorado to open LuLou’s, where he sent out layered, modern American dishes graced with international accents. Many local culinary professionals and experienced diners consider LuLou’s to be the finest restaurant ever to open in Reno.
“Without Don, I would not have had LuLou’s,” Cannan said.
“When I worked at the Eldorado, I had a 401(k). I also had the public visibility being at the Eldorado, and the opportunity to work in San Francisco with other chefs that gave me another perspective with kitchens and food. I used up my 401(k) to buy the restaurant.”
In 2008, the Caranos convinced Cannan to return to the Eldorado, to trade baked rock shrimp with preserved lemon and duck confit with white corn risotto and snarls of squid ink pasta for the executive chef position.
Eight years later, he departed again to concentrate on LuLou’s and on Kauboi Izakaya, his Midtown storefront serving pork bone and belly ramen, giant squid with yuzu mayo and other Japanese tavern-inspired food.
“Don Carano gave me a platform I don’t know I would have found otherwise in Reno,” Cannan said, looking back. “He really got me a leg up in this business. There’s no question he elevated the food game in Reno. It was a serious food program.”
Oh, yeah, gaming
Quality inspection and control were always crucial to the program.
My dad “goes throughout the restaurants now every day and tastes. If the marinara sauce is acidic from being in the steam table too long, get it out of there,” Gregg Carano said in 1996 just before the opening of Bistro Roxy.
“Sometimes, he’s so involved in the food, I have to say, ‘Hey, Dad, there’s a casino down there.’”
Gregg Carano attended the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s leading cooking school, and for many years has been his family’s culinary man on the ground. Today, he’s the food and beverage big kahuna for the Eldorado group.
As Don Carano and his wife Rhonda expanded their Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery — today, one of Sonoma County’s leading producers — he became less involved in the day-to-day food program at the Eldorado (the winery has always had a separate identity from the casino).
But that didn’t mean the patriarch’s influence wasn’t felt. Case in point: In 2013, when Robert Hesse, fresh from fame on “Hell’s Kitchen,” was enlisted to enliven the Bistro Roxy menu, he considered ditching the signature soufflés.
“I know they’re 1980s,” Hesse told the RGJ at the time, “but they’re selling — and Don Carano loves them.”