Ristorante Il Teatro in Wynn Macau may be known as the ultimate viewing area for the resort’s spectacular show fountains, but what Nicholas Olivas pulls off in the kitchen is its own dazzling affair.
Grilled Sicilian octopus, a specialty of chef Nicholas Olivas.
CHEF NICHOLAS OLIVAS still remembers the first time he tasted octopus as it was truly intended to be prepared. Living and working in Italy, Olivas was browsing the local fish market in Catania, Sicily. Hungry, he pulled up a stool at one of the stalls that doubled as an ad hoc café for the fresh catch. At the first mouthful, he was floored. “It was the most tender octopus I had ever had in my life,” Olivas recalls, swooning at the memory. “There was something about the way it was cooked, and I thought, I want to bring this back with me.” So he did. In the six years since, the chef has imported those same fishermen’s octopus to each one of his restaurants. He has then cooked it the same way: boiled in white wine and vinegar for an hour to tenderize, then finished off on a flame grill for extra crispiness. One of his signature dishes, it now appears on the newly reconceived menu at Ristorante Il Teatro in Wynn Macau, where Olivas has just been appointed chef de cuisine.
Born in Denver, Olivas logged time working at Wynn in Las Vegas before moving to Italy on a mission to finesse his understanding of that country’s food. The highlight was a stint in the kitchens of Michelin-starred La Gazza Ladra in Sicily, and Olivas has used that firsthand expertise when devising the dishes which form the core of Il Teatro’s new menu. He stresses that it is focused on southern cooking, like that from Sicily—distinct from the style that dominates in Italy’s north. “Up north, it’s so hearty, like they’re cooking for the winter; you find lots of cheese and cream. But southern Italian food is summer cooking; it’s light, with lots of olive oil, fresh herbs and seafood,” Olivas explains. “It’s very simple, clean, rustic, flavorful food. It’s all about cooking with love and passion, using the best, freshest ingredients.”
Chef Nicolas Olivas.
And it’s those obsessions, like his passion for Sicilian octopus, that define the chef’s approach at Il Teatro. “It’s quite the best part of my job, sourcing ingredients,” he says. His dedication to sourcing requires that Olivas takes three or four trips each year to Japan’s famed Tsukiji fish market. There, he can sample seafood, particularly scallops. Caught in the cold water around Hokkaido, they have a distinctive sweetness he has yet to find anywhere else. “They are used all over the world because the water is so pristine—it’s graded as Type A, which means you can just pluck a scallop out of the ocean and eat it raw.” At Il Teatro, he serves the mollusks simply: panseared with porcini mushrooms.
Olivas is also fanatical about tomatoes, a core ingredient in Southern Italian cooking. The San Marzano variety is widely considered the best, but the chef disagrees—it’s too tart to use alone, he believes. To cut the acidity, he hunted down the ideal companion tomato—an on-the-vine cherry varietal grown in the Netherlands. These arrive fresh in Macau, but Olivas is patient; the best thing to do with tomatoes, he advises, is to leave them for a while. “Those get sweeter and sweeter as the days go by,” he says. “But you must never keep tomatoes in a chiller, because tomatoes are not a cold-environment vegetable, and that stops them maturing. If you let them mature in a natural way, it builds up the sweetness.”
Il Teatro’s main dining room has an incomparable view of the resort’s Performance Lake.
But nothing epitomizes his persnickety approach to sourcing better than Olivas’ quest for burrata. The best is usually from Puglia, the heel of Italy: A moist shell of mozzarella wraps around a center of cream and stracciatella, or shredded cheese. Much of the burrata earmarked for export, however, is either too creamy and wet, or dry and rubbery. So Olivas flew to Italy himself and began a taste tour. Once back home in Asia, he staged a dozen or more tests with colleagues to see which was worthy of his menu. It wasn’t just flavor or texture he was assessing but also consistency; the finalists were sampled across six weeks to ensure that their high quality wasn’t a fluke.
Tahitian vanilla ice cream lends a cool balance to the warm apple fritters.
Olivas is also adroit at adapting Italian classics to retain authentic flavors while better appealing to local tastes. In risotto, for example, he reduces the amount of salty cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, and replaces it instead with more fresh, sautéed vegetables like porcini mushrooms. His four-cheese ravioli isn’t served with the traditional buttery sauce, but rather with a base made from basil and his tomato mix. “It’s a perfect balance between sweet and sour, which plays very well with the Asian palate, where balance is so important. Now, that’s my favorite dish on the menu.”
Thoroughly modern tiramisu is presented in a glass globe to showcase its layers.
Olivas’ inspiring cooking is an apt choice for Il Teatro; named after the Italian word for theater, the restaurant is a true showstopper. The appeal of the space has been enhanced with the recent reimagining, which emphasized performance, whether via an open kitchen with chefs at work, or the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Performance Lake. From there, diners are offered superb views onto the light and sound show, powered by music from the likes of Puccini and Shirley Bassey. “Il Teatro is a classic restaurant in Macau—even before I arrived, everyone knew it,” Olivas says. “But this new, fresh feel is so open and welcoming, and there’s a feeling of treating everyone like family. The esthetic goes along with the food. Even if it’s your first time here, it will feel like dining at home.” Well, make that a really delicious Italian home.