148 March 2010

by Bobbie Katz

He’s One of Las Vegas’ Most Eligible Bachelors and the Epitome of How to Succeed in Business Even When Times Are Trying

He’s GQ-handsome, intelligent, has an engaging personality, and he’s got that golden touch.

But can he cook?

All we can say is, if you can’t take the heat, you’d better stay out of his kitchens because restaurateur/designer/entrepreneur Nico Santucci is fanning the flames of success in more ways than one. On one front burner are his two locations of his popular Capo’s Italian restaurants and the Parisian Palace, his palatial home and a hideaway for his numerous A-list celebrity friends as well as a sought-after venue for parties and events, including those of a diplomatic nature. On the other are his projects currently in progress, including a rock star ultra-lounge that’s he’s opening with some rock star pals, and a soon-to-come Spanish cuisine restaurant in Boca Park in Summerlin.

As you might expect, Santucci also has no lack of things on the back burner. Constantly on the move with new ideas to add to his already full plate, he means business – as in build it and they’ll come.

“My dream was to be an architectural designer,” he claims. “Architecture is still my passion today – it appeals to all the senses. I did clubs and commercial spaces and later on decided to expand the commercial design element to include food and complete the ambiance experience with food and drink in an all-encompassing environment.”

Upon moving to Las Vegas from Los Angeles 10 years ago and investing heavily in real estate here, Santucci put his talents to work. He soon became known for his eclectic designs of Venus and C2K at the Venetian; Café Moda, which he owned and built, and the Lynx Lounge. Realizing that with his remodeling skills he could have his whole world in his hands, he then created the original Capo’s and the Parisian Palace.

Obtaining a common law trademark to have the only speakeasy-style restaurant in Las Vegas, Santucci fused his imagination and family lore with Las Vegas’ historical past and put himself under the gun to make Capo’s a uniquely different place. It has undeniably been Santucci’s creativity that has turned his two locations of the mob-themed Capo’s restaurant into bona fide culinary “hits.”

“Capo means mob boss,” explains Santucci. “The entire restaurant is based on the mob bosses of history. There are even images on the wall of members of my family, who, as it has been recounted, are descendants of a prominent crime family from Chicago. As a kid, I was always going to funerals and I remember the fighting over the position of the automobiles. My relatives hail from New York and Chicago and my uncle, my father’s brother, owned a restaurant in Chicago called Santucci’s that served my family’s homemade Italian recipes. My dad’s family was from Abruzzi, Italy and every one of them cooked.”

Indeed, Santucci has made his mark with his own twist on “family”-style dining. At both Capo’s locations, on Tropicana and Sahara, mobster-chic décor meets “to die for” Italian cuisine in venues that speak to the fact that he has gone to the wall with the bullet points, or details, that make for recreating an era.

That includes the “family” pictures of “Uncle Al” (as in Capone), “Uncle John” (Gotti), and other G-Men and Rat Pack figures that peer down at you, as well as the real Tommy Gun hanging over the bar. It all goes to show that some guys “sleep with the fishes” and others get to eat the fishes – and the Shrimp Scampi comes highly recommended.

“Capo’s menu is all authentic old-world recipes,” Santucci acknowledges. “It’s central Italian cooking, which combines a little of the northern and southern Italian cooking. But it’s not as heavy as either of those and it consists of a lighter and sweeter red sauce. However, I’m not going to be an imposter and try to sell anyone on Euro cuisine. The food is very New York-Chicago in the sense that it’s from the heart and is what I grew up with in Chicago.”

It was his early years in that city that account for Santucci’s being in high gear today, beginning with a taxi cab refurbishing business he started as a teenager. The youngest of three sons, he was a lonely child whose well-to-do parents traveled all the time and when home, rarely paid attention to him (“No one even showed up for my high school graduation,” he recalls.) Left to his own devices, he called upon his creative side to get him through the rough times and began to sketch interiors of homes and buildings.

“My loneliness played a role in my drive for success 100 percent,” Santucci claims.

Santucci’s business acumen first reared its head at 16 when he passed a Yellow Cab Company in downtown Chicago and noticed a bunch of cabs sitting in a graveyard, ready to be demolished. He ended up purchasing all 40 cabs, three at a time for $100 apiece, bringing them home and painting and refurbishing them in his back yard. Ultimately, he sold them for $1500 each.

Upon graduating from high school, however, he moved to Dallas with a contract from the Kim Dawson Modeling Agency in hand. After modeling designer clothing and living the good life for a year, he went to Miami on another agency contract to do more of the same. While there, he flew to Los Angeles for a weekend, and fell in love with the city and decided to move.

“I went to L.A. and started a limo company called Elite Limo,” he relates. “I started with one car and within two years had 14. I designed and had built from scratch the first Mercedes Benz, Rolls Royce, and Jaguar limos of their kind. I developed a high-end clientele and got to know a lot of celebrities and when I sold my company to a Japanese concern, I made so much money that I was ready to retire. I began to invest in real estate in L.A. and buy all kinds of luxury cars.”

But Santucci’s restless spirit had other ideas besides relaxation and he began designing and renovating mansions, which proved to be his specialty. All together he has remodeled 12 mansions, including Mansion 11 in L.A. and Red Rock Mansion in Las Vegas.

As for the Parisian Palace, Santucci purchased the 14,000-square-foot majestic French castle, located on Palmyra Road, which speaks to the history and romance of another continent and era, in 2004. Realizing an opportunity to restore it and renovate it to a glory it had heretofore never achieved, he decided to model it after a real 17th century Versailles palace, complete with Versace furniture and accoutrements and the original hand-painted murals on the ceilings done by master painter Thomas Bisetti. Santucci traveled all around the world collecting original artifacts. After totally redesigning and remodeling it, he debuted the 21-room mansion on New Year’s Eve 2006 with a celebrity bash the likes of which Las Vegas had never seen.

“The estate was originally built decades ago by a real estate developer who invested $13 million into what was then known as the “Villa de Reve” (House of Dreams),” says Santucci. “For a long time, it was rumored to be the Whoopi Goldberg mansion. The Parisian Palace, which I renamed it, is a virtual microcosm of post-war France.”

Ultimately, he added 5,000 square feet to the existing property, including new art by Bisetti, and a professional bowling alley – the latter being one of his eclectic touches. Last year, he renovated the Parisian Palace again to give it more of what he calls a “Rock Star” feel, adding music memorabilia, authentic gold records, countless electric guitars, a stage and lighting in the mansion’s nightclub, and a Chopper motorcycle that Santucci custom-built himself,

“All the mansions are different,” he notes. “The most difficult thing for me is often the permitting process because I like to do a lot of unorthodox things, such as unusual construction and unique water features. I’ve had to tone down some of my designs and make adjustments to please the government. But the environment speaks to me – I’ve never walked into a property with a set idea. I absorb what’s going on around me and I look at the space and it talks to me.”

At the root of this multi-faceted individual is a continuous need to diversify and to reinvent. In contrast, he remarks that his life is very structured and that he is very disciplined. He describes his six main characteristics as sincere, curious, idealistic, determined, chivalrous, and incredibly loyal in business. Ignorance and incompetence make him angry and while he listens to criticism, he also doesn’t let it deter him from his goal. He says that he is very direct with people and that, with him, what you see is what you get. He reveals that he wakes up in the morning with a desire to succeed.

“I wake up about 8:30 a.m. and work until midnight every day,” Santucci explains about his conservative lifestyle. “I eat and do everything on the fly. I don’t stop; I put in 12- to 14-hour days. I rarely take breaks and I don’t relax much or celebrate holidays. I am a workaholic in the true sense of the word. I worry about everything; I worry about creating perfection and about pleasing others. The affirmation of what I’ve done comes for me when others are pleased with my product.”

With it all, the single 40-something Santucci admits that he has had to make sacrifices, one of them being in the area of relationships. He admits, however, that he would love to get married and have children.

“I find life very fulfilling but I’m never fulfilled,” Santucci reveals. “My loneliness is still an unresolved issue. Nor have I reached my end goal because I don’t know what it is yet. Right now, life is all about the dream and I’m living it. Who can ask for anything more? The best thing about success is the autonomy, the independence, it gives you.”

Now there’s some true food for thought.

continued on page 150

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