Giada De Laurentiis became a massive star on Food Network shows like Everyday Italian and Giada at Home, but not until 2014 did the Emmy Award winner and New York Times bestselling cookbook author open her first restaurant, Giada, at Las Vegas' Cromwell Hotel. Vegas is a town with perhaps more culinary star wattage than any other, so De Laurentiis knew from the get-go that the restaurant bearing her name would have to deliver a quality on the plate—and in the glass—to succeed on the Strip.
As such, Giada provides not only a destination for food lovers and fans, but also a spot for enophiles to seek out, with a 500-selection, Best of Award of Excellence–winning wine list spanning California staples and more adventurous Italian picks to match De Laurentiis' signature Italy-meets-California cuisine—plus plenty of options for Vegas-style splurges. Head sommelier James Bremner, an alumnus of Las Vegas restaurants Bradley Ogden at Caesars Palace and Lakeside at the Wynn, steers the cellar.
De Laurentiis has her hands full with her television career, her ever-expanding collection of cookbooks and a new restaurant concept in the works. She and Bremner spoke with editorial assistant Lexi Williams about pairing wine with the chef's signature dishes, and how great wine moments are often about more than just what's in your glass.
Wine Spectator: How did you get involved in the restaurant world?
Giada De Laurentiis: Food is very embedded in my family history. My grandfather's family owned a pasta factory in Naples during World War II. Then, after that, my grandfather [Dino De Laurentiis] ended up becoming a movie producer, but in the midst of all that still loved food so much. So he opened these little gourmet shops in Beverly Hills and New York City called DDL Foodshow, and upstairs there was a little restaurant, where he'd make his mom's recipe for pasta, the sauces and all that jazz. I was between 10 and 12 when all this was going down, and I went there after school. I just fell in love with the whole scene, and truly that's when I first realized that this was the world I wanted to be in.
After finishing school and going to college, I ended up going to culinary school. And I just sort of fell into the TV thing. Then about five [or so] years ago, people started approaching me for restaurants. After seeing a lot of places over the years in Las Vegas, I fell in love with the space [at the Cromwell]. I sort of jumped at it, and I got to build a restaurant from scratch. Not many people can say they've done that in Vegas.
James Bremner: I've been working front of the house in restaurants for 27 years. It was something I was only supposed to do until I got through college and got a "real job," if you will. I've been a sommelier on the Strip for about 10 years, but I got interested in wine maybe about 17 years ago. I think it's the most fun job you can have. The waiter's going to come by and talk about the specials, maybe you want the manager when things aren't going your way, but everyone is happy to see someone bringing them wine.
WS: What's your favorite wine-and-food pairing at the restaurant?
GD: My lemon spaghetti has become sort of my hallmark; I sell over a million lemon spaghettis a year. That one was a little trickier to figure out—you know, what do we want to serve with that? We settled on a Vermentino, which is nice and citrusy. It's sort of a lighter, drier white wine that I don't think many Americans would consider to drink with lemon spaghetti.
JB: One of my classic go-tos has got to be Pecorino al Tartufo and Chablis. The Pecorino al Tartufo has a truffle paste that runs throughout the cheese, and I know a lot of times when people think mushrooms and truffle, they think red Burgundy normally. But for me, Chablis, with the heavy limestone minerality, sharp acid to it, is such a clean food-and-wine pairing, especially early on in the meal.
WS: What's your larger philosophy with how wine should be part of a restaurant experience?
GD: I think when people see Italian food, they think of wine. They just go hand in hand so well. So I wanted to make sure that we had a diversified wine portfolio. And although with cooking, yes, I pair wine, I never did it on a grand scale the way it is in Vegas. I didn't have a lot of professionals telling me, "This is what works best with this." I just kind of tasted and decided myself what tasted the best and what highlighted the food. I think that's really important. And I now have the luxury of Jimmy to sort of guide me in the right direction.
JB: [Our list] is about 40 percent Italian, 40 percent California and 20 percent French. In Vegas, in general, the market is very California-driven. We get some of the Italian-curious crowd—people who normally drink Cabs but they want to try something Italian. So I have those gateway wines: Amarones from Veneto or Cannonau from Sardinia. Even more moderate styles [like] super Tuscans—something that isn't completely taking them out of their comfort zones.
Wine is a personal thing to people. There's no right or wrong thing to be drinking. It’s like asking people what's the best car you can buy. Everyone's going to be looking for something different; everyone's going to like something different about it. I have no pretension when it comes to that. As long as people are drinking wine, that's what makes me happy.
WS: Have you ever had any wine "a-ha" moments?
JB: I think for me, it's definitely 2001 Robert Groffier Bonnes Mares, hands down. I had that wine when ’01 was the current vintage, so I'll be dating myself a little bit. That was one of those moments when I was like, "Whoa, I'm gonna drink Burgundy forever." And then I realized I can't afford to drink Burgundy forever [laughs].
GD: It's the whole package. It's not just the glass of wine, but where you drink it, how you drink it, with whom and with what. You could go to a great restaurant but if the ambience is too loud or it's too bright or if the seats are uncomfortable, you're always going to remember how it wasn't quite the moment you were looking for. Wine is part of that whole experience. And, hopefully, that's what we do at Giada: give the whole package. It's not just the food, it's not just the ambience, it's not just the service, it's not just the wine. It's all of it together. And I think that sometimes those "a-ha" moments happen because all of that has come together so beautifully.