Culinary Superstars – Dora Pane: Careers, Fine Dining and “La Famiglia”


In the concluding segment of my series, Fresco Italiano’s General Manager brings the invaluable warmth of family gatherings to her restaurant guests…

Last month I introduced you to a pair of genuine Italians who have brought true authenticity to dining at Westgate Las Vegas. And while I focused on dynamic Chef Paola Bugli in that previous piece, it was with the promise that next time we’d get to know Fresco Italiano‘s general manager Dora Festa Pane.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

It seems fitting that “Festa” is part of this lovely lady’s name. After all, the Italian derivation of “festival” is the sensation you’ll have when dining at this authentic eatery. Each meal is meant to be an experience, something that Ms. Dora (as I like to call her) promises to every guest.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

In order to deliver on that commitment, the native of Naples dined at Fresco Italiano to see what it was like…and determine if she could put her own personal imprint onto the already-successful restaurant.

I came at the end of last year to eat, check things out and see what it was like. I didn’t introduce myself to the server or tell anyone that I was considering a position here. It’s better to just observe, analyze and think about what could be improved.

Honestly, I wasn’t completely happy. When this is your career, you find yourself analyzing so many things. Fresco Italiano is a beautiful place and there were many things to love. But their way of serving the guests could have been carried out much better.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

It’s easy to be a restaurant critic in today’s world of online user reviews, but Ms. Dora was honing her craft (and what makes a restaurant successful) long before Yelp! came along. Years of experience in high-profile establishments throughout the Vegas valley established her as an expert at her profession. So when that evening at Fresco Italiano didn’t quite meet her exacting standards, she accepted an invitation to make it her own.

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It may surprise you that a manager would be so candid about their own place of employment, but Ms. Dora is no-nonsense and outspoken. Fluent in several languages, she’s a colorful conversationalist who speaks from the heart. Her exposure to a myriad of cultures and atmospheres warrants your trust in her abilities.

As soon as I came in, I needed to learn about my crew…as a group and as individuals. It’s tough to do that when a place is already established. You need to be sweet AND sour. There were things to fix, but I didn’t come here to change people. Only to make them better.

When operating a restaurant, Ms. Dora does so with a mixture of passion and skill from the perspective of an actual owner. You might say that operating restaurants is in Dora’s blood. Her father had his own passion for great dining service and was a longtime maître d’ in her hometown of Naples before becoming a food critic. Although he passed away at a relatively young age, Dora credits him with much of her professionalism and knowledge. 

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

After high school, she earned degrees in both Education and Psychology from Italy’s Cristo Re Magistral Institute. That unique combination might not be the norm for a career in restaurant management, but she feels it’s given her distinct advantages in this field.

I’m a teacher here at the restaurant…and psychology helps me with my work, too. It’s much easier to teach children because adults tend to resist. Everyone has something that holds them back. It could be their pride, birth sign, background life…whatever. My job is to overcome that.

When I came here in secret, my server clearly had something holding him back. Now that we’ve worked together, he’s the best server in the entire restaurant.

As we spoke in the darkened lounge a little before opening time, Ms. Dora happened to notice a few people standing at the entrance. Excusing herself, she greeted the group and invited them to have some wine at the bar until actual service began.

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“My bartender will probably get angry with me for doing his job” she winked as we resumed our conversation. That small moment of courtesy spoke mountains about Ms. Dora’s character. A lesser host would have simply asked them to return at the proper time. But this professional knows that a good impression lasts a lifetime.

It’s no wonder that Dora Pane has been involved with many wonderful Las Vegas restaurants in the valley. She’s been in the Vegas area for twenty-one years and dove headfirst into the big leagues by starting at MGM Grand.

Ms. Dora eyes lit up as she excitedly shared her history throughout Sin City. While moonlighting at dance clubs, she quickly rose from working as a food server to managing family-owned food shops. That was followed by a position as assistant manager at Terrazza at Caesars Palace. Overlooking the glorious Garden of the Gods, Terrazza was a fine-casual Italian restaurant located in the spot now occupied by Rao’s Las Vegas.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Remaining within the Caesars family, Ms. Dora opened Voga, a modern Italian venue at nearby Flamingo Casino Resort. Seen above with her epicurean team, she proudly described ten years with Caesars corporation, which also included a stint at Steakhouse 46 (inside Flamingo). Sadly, it all came to a close when the company began doing huge cuts.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

What followed was a vast array of life experiences – running Robert De Niro’s Tuscan-themed AGO at Hard Rock Hotel (“that place was too classy for Hard Rock”), collaborating with Todd Moreau at both Hard Rock and Sunset Station (“we tend to follow each other”) and achieving new career standards at ALLEGRO of Wynn/Encore.

Things didn’t go as well as I would have liked at ALLEGRO. The hours were very bad. I had a young child at the time and no extended family here. Money isn’t everything when your children need you. So I left ALLEGRO after exactly one year.

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Yearning more of an atmosphere and schedule suited for a working mother, Ms. Dora settled in wonderfully at Venetian‘s Trattoria Reggiano (locals flock to the Downtown Summerlin’s flagship location). Spearheaded by Fifth Avenue Restaurant Group, Trattoria Reggiano brought her into a powerhouse that operates over forty establishments….and full circle with their involvement at Flamingo, Venetian and MGM Grand.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

After high school, eldest daughter Daniela graduated from University of Nevada, Las Vegas and moved to Naples. Son Gio has followed in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather by joining the staff at legendary Vegas Italian eatery Battista’s Hole in the Wall.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

And with youngest daughter Alessandra now grown into a lovely young lady, mother Dora has seized another opportunity to make an impact on the ever-changing Sin City dining scene.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Perhaps the importance of family is why Ms. Pane agreed to spearhead the staff at Fresco Italiano. As I’ve said many times in this column, Westgate exemplifies the principles of dedication, service and commitment to guests that Las Vegas was founded on.

It’s a philosophy that hearkens back to the days of Mob-run Vegas, when the guests were all that mattered (well, maybe a few other things, too…). With the recent downturn in stock values and profits for Caesars and MGM Resorts properties, the current business model for Las Vegas has been put under intense scrutiny. Westgate was already ahead of the curve on a customer-based ideology that’s sorely in need of a city-wide renaissance.

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

                     Sharing the Fresco Italiano family experience with my own…

It’s true that attractions, restaurants and even entire resorts come and go in this city. But the priceless importance of its people will remain. What makes any organization work, at its core, is the dedication and camaraderie of its team.

Ms. Dora Pane understands this. With her in the driver’s seat and Chef Paola Bugli in charge of the kitchen, a journey through the Tuscan landscape via Fresco Italiano is one you’ll want to repeat over and over again. Finisci di mangiare!

Dora Pane Fresco Italiano Westgate

Fresco Italiano is open for dinner 365 days a year at 5 pm – lunch hours vary by date. For more information or to place reservations call 702.732.5276.

Photos: Sammasseur, Dora Festa Pane, Westgate Las Vegas, Cyber-reef.com

 

 

 

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Westgate’s Culinary Superstars – Chef Paola Bugli


Profiling a Chef who brings true Italian authenticity to Westgate’s “Fresco Italiano”…

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Outside the entrance to Fresco Italiano, two adorable Vespa scooters are amusingly parked. Almost symbolically, it seems as though they’ve been waiting for the right pair of riders to hop aboard and take control.

Inside, that very thing has taken place for two Italian immigrants who recently arrived to helm Fresco’s kitchen and operations. Despite the restaurant already being an established hit, this pair has elevated the Tuscan eatery to new heights.

Regular readers might recognize Fresco Italiano as my very first column when I launched this site last summer. Since then, I’ve dined here repeatedly, savoring every wonderful morsel. Not only is the food to die for, but the atmosphere and service scream “Italian authenticity”.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                            General Manager Dora Pana and Chef Bugli…

As you enjoy the dining experience, your party might be greeted by a lovely blonde with a distinctive Naples accent. General Manager Dora Pane loves to chat with her guests, lending a family-like ambiance to every visit. She’ll remind you of that favorite aunt who invites you to sit down at her kitchen table and “mangiare“. (I’ll be spending time with Ms. Pane for a profile article very soon.)

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

But of course, the big draw for this type of meal is the magic that happens inside the kitchen. That’s where Chef Paola Brugli comes in. This elegant native of Florence is the Executive Chef for Fresco Italiano and an absolute treat to meet. As busy as she is in the kitchen, Ms. Bugli also finds time to engage her guests and share a mutual enthusiasm for great dishes.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Kitchen time was ingrained in Chef Paola’s family traditions. She learned from her mother and grandmother how to make pasta, polenta and sauces. They worked together as a team, each doing something different to prepare a complete meal. Lessons from those collaborative efforts would be invaluable once Bugli decided to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                                           Florence, Italy…

Chef Paola enrolled in the Istituto Professionale Alberghiero Aurelio Saffi of Firenze Italy in 1977. There she achieved degrees in Culinary Arts and Hotel Management, then spent the next several decades honing techniques in fabulous restaurants and destinations throughout Italy.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

The shores of the Unites States eventually welcomed Chef Bugli to a new chapter and more career adventures. First came Atlanta, where she spent a decade in the kitchens of several noteworthy restaurants, holding positions as Sous Chef, Pastry Chef, Chef de Cuisine and Executive Chef.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                          Lumiere Place Casino Hotel…

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                      House of Savoy Italian Eatery…

Eight years ago Bugli settled into the St. Louis area after capturing the attention of a recruiter for Pinnacle Entertainment. There she spent a year and a half as Executive Chef for the now-shuttered House of Savoy, an authentic riverfront Italian eatery in the gorgeous Lumière Place Casino Hotel. This turned out to be her first position in a gaming resort, but fortunately would not be her last.

As luck would have it, Chef Paola worked under the mentorship of Jeffrey DeVito, current Vice President of Food and Beverage at Westgate Las Vegas. As she told me “It was my first job in a casino and I was a little concerned about that, but Mr. DiVito was always extremely supportive”.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

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During her time in St. Louis, Chef Paolo proudly achieved United States citizenship in a wonderful ceremony held at the new National Archives, which was inaugurated for the occasion. The variety of cultures, climates and opportunities of this nation were now hers to explore without limit.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

                                                     Sea Island Resort…

Next up was the lush Sea Island Resort, south of Savannah on the sunny coast of Georgia. There Bugli served as Chef de Cuisine for Tavola, a formal yet rustic Italian dining experience. Tavola‘s philosophy is “the soul of Italy isn’t just found on the menu. It’s around the table” which might explain why the Florence native was drawn there.

After dabbling in some consulting work in Savannah, it was off to Biloxi, Mississippi for a new position with Beau Rivage Casino Resort. As Room Chef for Stalla Italian Restaurant, Chef Bugli was once again able to bring her authentic style to another part of the United States. ”

Her philosophy of simple, fresh ingredients (“super-simple is the key” she likes to say) made her very popular with the resort’s guests. So much so that she remained there for over four years, creating an indelible mark on the MGM Resorts property.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

     Chef Bugli was featured in “Women in Business” at Beau Rivage Resort…

Alas, a change in corporate management began to crush this independent artist’s creativity, so it was once again time to move on. When asked if it was difficult to make so many changes in her life, her response was candid. “Maybe I’m a masochist but I like the challenges. Sometimes you have to find the right way to part. I don’t believe in creating failures…I like to give opportunities”.

As has been the case of so many gifted culinary artists I’ve profiled, Chef Bugli found new creative horizons via the food and beverage team at Westgate Las Vegas. In January she took over as Executive Chef for Fresco Italiano, one of my favorite restaurants in the city. And she was once again on a team overseen by Jeffrey DiVito.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Coming aboard an established and successful venture would indeed offer Chef Paola some trials and tribulations but she was up to the task.

Everything in a restaurant is a connected process. A kitchen is like a pirate crew…we’re weird. There needs to be creative cohesiveness from front to back.

Working with General Manager Dora Pane, the two have taken the operation and streamlined it to reflect their own styles.

Food is so much about energies…your whole self. Shake people up a bit and you get good results. So we’re improving things like the service steps and our wine offerings. I’m also adjusting the flavor profile and retraining the staff with my cooking methods.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

When asked what procedures she referred to, Chef Bugli explained:

It’s not enough just to follow a recipe’s ingredients. It’s the steps that matter. You see, a sauce isn’t just throwing everything into a pot and letting it boil. Certain ingredients have to be sauteed together first to let their flavors develop. Then others like tomatoes are added afterwards. You can taste the difference by doing things in the proper order.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Attention to detail is also reflected on the ingredients she purchases for her dishes.

The culture at our restaurant is respectful of the environment. In Italy it’s a concept called Zero-Kilometer Cooking. We can’t get all locally-produced foods being in the desert, but we can come pretty close. It’s also necessary to change our offerings depending on the season. A winter tomato won’t taste the same as one in July. People will know the difference!

Making a difference is what Chef Paola’s cooking is all about:

Guests are more educated now. Everyone is a connoisseur, so we approach Fresco Italiano with a friends-and-family atmosphere. This may be casual fine dining, but we want people to leave feeling like they’ve had an experience.

When asked about her new life in Las Vegas, Chef Paola gave a bit of a shrug. “I haven’t had time to get to know Vegas yet, really, except through the people I’ve met at Westgate. When I settle in, maybe I’ll start up a local women’s chef group”.

As for Sin City sights, the Florence native had plenty to say about the Strip. “Las Vegas replicates so many famous landmarks and they’ve done it beautifully. You’ve got Paris, Venice, Rome, Egypt. It’s amazing”.

She did have a word of warning for any future resort planners, though. “Vegas can do anything else they want, but they’d better leave Florence alone. We’re already perfect!” she chuckled wildly.

Chef Paola Bugli Fresco Italiano

Fresco Italiano is open for dinner 365 days a year at 5 pm – lunch hours vary by date. For more information or to place reservations call 702.732.5276.

Photos: Sammasseur, Chef Paola Bugli, TripAdvisor, Yelp!, Beau Rivage Casino Resort, Seas Island Resort, Westgate Las Vegas