The best advice Gina Marinelli, executive chef of Las Vegas Italian hotspot La Strega, ever received about how to run a restaurant came from one of the top minds in the NFL — her dad Rodney Marinelli, the defensive line coach for the Las Vegas Raiders.
“I had him come in and speak to the team, and he said, ‘A lot of places say this is my family, the restaurant is my family. But in a family, the strongest person carries the weakest,’” she recalls. “‘To be successful in business, you cannot be a family. It will never work. You have to be a brotherhood and a sisterhood and that’s about accountability.’”
While it might seem like football and food are unlikely to commingle, other than at the sports bar or over the chip-and-dip bowl, Marinelli has a lifetime of inspiration and wisdom from her dad to prove otherwise.
“I was really fortunate how I was brought up. He wasn’t trying to coach me, he was trying to guide me. Always thinking of the future — who do you want to be? What type of person do you want to be? When I was five, I was getting magazines all the time, to get ready to look at what colleges to apply to. He kept me very structured,” she says.
That mindset empowered Marinelli to write her own narrative — from her cooking, to her business, to her personal life. While Las Vegas is not known for its neighborhood eateries, La Strega, located on the west side of the city, began to redefine the local dining landscape when it opened in 2019. Formerly, Marinelli worked alongside chefs on the Strip such as Michael Mina at Nobhill Tavern, Sven Mede at American Fish at Aria, Shawn McClain at Sage at Aria, and James Beard-winning chef Scott Conant at D.O.C.G. Enoteca at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.
It was at D.O.C.G. that her love for all the delicacies of Italy sparked. “That’s really when it just dialed in for me — this is the food I want to cook, and I kept going back to Italy,” she says. Travels took her to the country’s Amalfi Coast, Sicily, and Bologna to immerse herself in authentic Italian cuisine.
“La Strega is coastal Italian,” she says. “We get fresh seafood that we sell just for the day. And we change it up as much as we can because a lot of our guests come a few times a week. People call the restaurant in the morning to find out what I’m cooking that day. Pasta is great. But pasta with seafood is even better. I just felt like that story had never been told in Vegas.”
She attributes the success of La Strega to building a sense of trust with her customer base to offer comfortable, unpretentious food, like Caesar salad, pasta al pomodoro, and pizza margherita. “They don’t have to Google things on the menu,” she says. Once she earns their loyalty, she casually throws in a wild card — the pescheria, or fisherman’s selection.
La Strega’s constantly changing fresh fish menu features specialty items such as uni (sea urchins) and razor clams. Whatever Marinelli gets in goes on the chalkboard, and then there is a countdown to sell out. “For example, our Santa Barbara uni, we have 10 and then we sell them out. They go in the first two hours,” she says.
Italian and innovation have always been in her blood, literally. “My dad is 100 percent Italian — and my mom’s Mexican. Growing up, my mom was always cooking, we never had the same meal — she was always trying new things,” she says.
A football family, the Marinellis bounced from San Francisco to L.A. to Arizona, and then Florida. After graduating from college, she attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and got a job at Roy’s Restaurant in Orlando, which specialized in Hawaiian fusion cuisine, as a dishwasher, working her way up. It was also while she was in Orlando that she came out to her mom.
“I went through high school and college and kept it really quiet. It wasn’t that I was afraid [about what] my family would think, I was afraid to say it. And my mom called me when I was working at Roy’s — almost 20 years ago — and she’s like, ‘Are you gay?’ And I just, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I said it, and I hung up on her, and I ran into Roy’s and I was crying and crying,” she says.
“I didn’t tell my dad for a while because I was very scared. Look at what he does for a living and they just won the Super Bowl [at the time],” Marinelli says.
Marinelli moved to Las Vegas, and it was there that she came out to her dad. Rod Marinelli’s reaction to her being a lesbian? “He said, ‘You are the love of my life, whoever you love.’ I am so blessed with the support…. It’s never been, ‘This is my gay daughter.’ It’s, ‘This is my daughter.’ It’s always Gina first.”
She carries that same attitude in her kitchen. “I’m very open and honest and I speak about my wife, just like I would speak about my husband. It’s not hush-hush. They all know my wife comes to the restaurant, she annoys the shit out of me,” Marinelli says with a laugh. “They all know who she is.”
Earlier this year, Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders became the first active NFL player to come out as gay. Marinelli was exceptionally proud of how that milestone came from her dad’s team.
“I was very excited. And knowing how my dad is and how he was with me — I knew he was going to be the same with Carl. For my dad, football is football, and for Carl to come out, that took so much courage. He’s brilliant, and he’s a great athlete. I can’t imagine what he’s gone through holding that in this whole time,” she says.
As for what’s next, Marinelli says she is working on plans for launching her second restaurant in the neighborhood, of course. “I love being part of the Las Vegas team,” she says. “I go to other cities and it feels so saturated, with so many people trying to do so many things. And here, what’s nice is I’m able to open restaurants within a few miles of each other, and then drive home. You can really make a big splash here.”
As for an eventual return to the Strip, though, the rising star won’t rule anything out.
“I never say never. Right now, I love being in the neighborhood and being local. But you never know what the future holds.”
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