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The best desserts in Las Vegas with Cake Boss Buddy Valastro

“Cake Boss! Seriously? Can I get a picture?”

I watch as a woman shakes her head in disbelief, then squeals at the sight of Buddy Valastro. In the 10 steps it takes to walk from Buddy V’s Ristorante, the reality show star’s Italian restaurant at the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian Resort Las Vegas, to Carlo’s Bakery, his dessert shop across the walkway, he is mobbed with fans.

“Of course,” he says. They stand in front of a life-size cutout of the cake boss to take a selfie.

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Valastro is dressed like any other tourist. His black polo shirt is untucked above his jeans. His hair is slicked straight back and he has a chunky gold watch on one wrist and a chunky gold bracelet around the other.

He takes a few more photos, then ducks into the kitchen. The windows lining the bakery fill up with iPhones as people press up against the glass for a closer look.

“It would be much harder for me to get around if I were wearing my chefs coat,” he says, gesturing to the crowd.

Valastro’s fans are enthusiastic, and from all over the world. His first reality show, “Cake Boss,” which chronicled the operations at his family’s 60-year-old Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, N.J., ran for nine seasons, airs in more than 200 countries and is dubbed in 45 languages. He has four other shows about to be released on various streaming services, as well as nearly 40 bakeries and cake vending machines around the country. His products are sold at more than 3,000 Walmarts.

Valastro, who on this trip to Las Vegas is helping the Venetian Resort celebrate its 25th anniversary, is taking time out to accompany me on a dessert crawl to some of his favorite restaurants and bakeries in the city. We begin, of course, at Carlo’s Bakery.

5:33 p.m. Carlo’s Bakery at the Venetian Resort

Buddy Valastro behind the counter at Carlo's Bakery in the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Buddy Valastro behind the counter at Carlo’s Bakery in the Venetian in Las Vegas.

(Hannah Rushton / For The Times)

Valastro’s lead baker, Christina Nasso, emerges from a back room with a lobster tail, a cannoli, a brownie, a German chocolate brownie and a cookies-and-milk cake. These are all for us to sample.

First Valastro breaks the lobster tail in two, sending shards of pastry and powdered sugar flying.

“It’s the hardest Italian pastry to make,” he says, handing me a half. “Each one is still hand-opened and filled.”

The pastry shell is golden, with the layers pulling apart from one another like scales. My half overflows with a vanilla cream that’s as rich and smooth as ice cream.

A traditional lobster tail, filled with Carlo's Bakery's French cream.

A traditional lobster tail, filled with Carlo’s Bakery’s French cream.

It’s a pastry Valastro’s father, Bartolo “Buddy” Valastro Sr., taught him to make at the bakery as a kid. But when his dad died in 1994, Valastro had troubling replicating his recipe. Then, he says, his dad came to him in a dream to help.

“I woke up and had like chills,” he says. “The next day I went in and I was able to do it.”

Now he digs a fork into the cookies-and-milk cake, careful to build me a bite that incorporates all the elements of the dessert. It’s tender cake with bits of chocolate chip cookies strewn throughout and a milky filling that oozes. It’s Valastro’s take on a tres leches.

“If you don’t get the milk squirt, it’s not real tres leches,” he says.

Valastro is constantly coming up with new bakes, using time during his weekly two-hour massage to dream up new ideas. His brownie and newer German chocolate brownie are satisfying squares of pure fudge. The cannoli filling is lush velvet in cream form, made from 100% Calabrian ricotta.

“I pay a lot more per pound for it because you can taste the richness,” he says. “You know, sometimes people think that because you’re on TV or you have multiple locations that you’re commercialized, but we make everything every day and it’s scratch recipes.”

He grabs a vacuum-sealed piece of red, white and blue cake from a nearby display case.

“You become a food scientist,” he says. “We whip every single batter to like 7.1 viscosity and weigh it against the weight of water so we know we can put that much aeration. See how it’s like a tight grain here?”

Whether you have a slice of cake from one of his bakeries, vending machines or Walmart, each one starts at his 100,000-square-foot factory in New Jersey. There, he prepares around 20,000 pounds of cake batter a day, using his original recipes, and mostly on machines Valastro engineered himself. On the line used to make a new cake for Walmart, Valastro says he can put out 12 to 20 cakes per minute. He’ll need the efficiency and volume, anticipating that Walmart will run through 250,000 of his cakes in the span of just three to four months.

Valastro is once again mobbed when we exit the bakery. He tries to hide behind a pair of aviator sunglasses like a sort of Clark Kent disguise, but the crowd follows. There’s no disguising the cake boss.

6:07 p.m. Cut at the Venetian Resort

A hand pours caramel over a chocolate sphere

Caramel is poured tableside over the banana cream pie at the Cut by Wolfgang Puck in the Venetian.

As we walk through the resort, Valastro tells me about the time he made a bar mitzvah cake for Sheldon Gary Adelson, the late, former owner of the Venetian. Valastro told Adelson that it was his dream to open a restaurant and bakery on the Las Vegas Strip. Adelson looked Valastro in the eyes and said, “You got a deal, kid.”

Buddy V’s opened at the Venetian Resort in the fall of 2013, followed by Carlo’s Bakery the next year.

“I’ll never forget the first time I stepped foot in the finished restaurant,” he says. “I looked down at the Strip and I started to cry.”

We sit at a spacious booth inside Cut, Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse at the hotel. Valastro orders the banana cream pie from a dessert menu that includes half a dozen selections from pastry chef Nicole Erle.

“Whenever I come here, this is my favorite steakhouse,” he says. “I’m spoiled because chefs will always send me most of the desserts. That’s one good thing about being the cake boss.”

It’s a name that’s afforded him a certain level of celebrity in the nearly 15 years since the show premiered. But it’s a name he says he never really wanted.

“Honestly, I didn’t like that name at first,” he says.

Valastro was afraid people would hear the name and assume that he was arrogant. Maybe even a jerk. He didn’t want the show be filled with drama or focus on fighting with other family members.

“That’s totally not who I am as a person,” he says. “TLC assured me that it was just about how I run a family business., and once I knew what the show was about, I don’t think I could ever go back and not love and appreciate the name. I embraced it. I am the boss.”

Buddy Valastro sits at a restaurant table, hands clasped and elbows on the table in front of him

Buddy Valastro talks about his story before TV and how he came to be known as “the Cake Boss.”

When Valastro took over his dad’s bakery at age 19, he had no aspirations of being on TV. But he did want to make Carlo’s Bakery a household name.

His first step was to earn more money. In 1996, supermarket bakeries were putting small operations like his out of business.

“So if I do these like prettier cakes and put a little fondant on the cake, now I can get like $1,000 for a three-tier cake?” he says. “It was a no-brainer.”

He ordered “some of that fondant stuff” and taught himself how to decorate cakes. Pretty soon the display window at the bakery was full of his elaborately designed cakes featuring multiple tiers adorned with pretty piping and flowers.

A woman from Modern Bride magazine saw the window display and asked Valastro to prepare a cake for the magazine. He quickly became one of the premier wedding cake makers in the tristate area, with more than 200 publications featuring his wedding cakes over the course of a decade.

Valastro started doing TV cake competitions. After losing one contest, a cameraman approached him and told him he needed his own show.

“It got the thinking process going,” Valastro says. “I’m a thinker. I started thinking about the characters in my life in Hoboken and my family, and I started laughing. It was like a sitcom.”

Valastro called the Food Network and told them he wanted a TV show.

“They say, ‘No, we don’t really care, keep doing challenges,’” he says.

By now, it’s 2008, and Carlo’s Bakery is making 50 to 60 wedding cakes a week. One day, his sister calls and says that TLC is on the phone. No, not the band. The network. They saw him on one of the challenge shows and they’re interested in a cake show.

“I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a sizzle reel, but I pitched them the idea that became ‘Cake Boss,’” Valastro says.

TLC commissioned a pilot, then ordered 13 more episodes. Valastro and his family would eventually shoot 300 episodes of the show.

Our server interrupts our conversation to wheel over our banana cream pie. It’s more of a deconstructed pie that’s been elaborately reconstructed as a chocolate sphere speckled with 23-karat gold. He pours hot caramel over the top until it starts to melt and collapse in on itself.

Valastro uses his spoon to carefully scoop up the banana custard, vanilla wafers, caramelized banana and some of the fractured shell.

“I love that it has a really nice balance of chocolate with banana, and the texture of the wafers really drives it home for me,” he says. “But it’s the complexity and layers of banana in there. It feels like there’s banana puree in the cream and the caramel just really ties it all together.”

6:58 p.m. Piero’s

Buddy Valastro and Jenn Harris talk in the back seat of a limo

Buddy Valastro and Jenn Harris talk in a limo on the way to the third stop on the Crawl, Piero’s.

A Cadillac limo pulls up to the valet of the hotel to take us to Piero’s Italian Cuisine, a restaurant just east of the Strip near the Las Vegas Convention Center. It’s an old-school, red sauce place that’s been around since 1982.

We take a seat on a curved leather booth in the back of the dimly lit dining room.

“Anyone who knows Vegas knows that the food here is pretty extraordinary,” Valestro says. “You gotta love places like this where you can relate to the environment.”

Though he spends most of his time baking, between his wife, mother and grandma, Valastro says he’s always been surrounded by good Italian food.

“I would often go out to eat and wish I was at home because the food was so good,” he says. “I wanted to bring a taste of that to the world.”

Before he opened Buddy V’s, he partnered with restaurateur Elizabeth Blau and brought her and the entire team out to New Jersey for a big family gathering. His aunts, mom and mother-in-law prepared the family recipes that became the basis for the menu at the restaurant.

The rice pudding at Piero's.

The rice pudding at Piero’s.

Buddy Valastro speaks with Jenn Harris at Piero's.

Buddy Valastro speaks with Jenn Harris at Piero’s.

Now, Valastro has “a lot of concepts in Vegas,” including Pizza Cake at Harrah’s, run by his father-in-law, who had a pizzeria in New Jersey for 30 years. At the Linq Hotel there’s the Boss Cafe with pizza, sandwiches and desserts. Just outside the hotel is Buddy’s Jersey Eats, where he serves food you might find at a carnival, like Jersey Rippers and chicken wings. He’s getting ready to open another pizzeria on the Strip.

He has a warehouse and freezer in Vegas where he stores his products. Valastro is bringing in pizza dough, cake batter and various other foods to fill, top and bake off at his Vegas restaurants and bakeries from the main facility in New Jersey at least a couple of times a week.

“I’m a high school dropout, but I feel like you’re born with a business instinct,” he says. “Being a problem solver and never giving up, being a dreamer and overachiever, you accomplish things.”

Our server comes by to drop off a bowl of rice pudding and another filled with chocolate budino. The rice pudding is impossibly weightless on the spoon, like a cloud of rice and whipped cream.

“This is creamy and dreamy,” Valastro says. “It’s cooked to perfection and the little bits of orange zest and cinnamon are so good.”

There is a handful of black cherries soaked in syrup on top of the budino. It has a deep, dark chocolate flavor and a consistency that’s stiff but silky.

“You have to have it with the cherry to balance the sweetness,” Valastro says before licking his spoon.

He’s right.

7:13 p.m. Dominique Ansel at Caesars Palace

Buddy Valastro gazes at the pastries in the case at Dominique Ansel in Caesars Palace.

Buddy Valastro gazes at the pastries in the case at Dominique Ansel in Caesars Palace.

At Dominique Ansel’s bakery inside Caesars Palace, Valastro does not order the Cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid pastry Ansel is known for. Instead, he gravitates toward the cinnamon roll, key lime pie and waffle.

Though the waffle is presented in the shape of a waffle, it’s a stunning brown butter hazelnut almond dacquoise with a caramelized pecan mousse. The cinnamon roll is an airy cinnamon chiffon cake around a Honeycrisp apple compote and mascarpone mousse.

“It’s the perfect balance of texture and flavors, not over-sweet,” he says. “You get the apples and cinnamon and the little bit of chocolate on the outside for some crunch.”

The cinnamon roll at Dominique Ansel.

The cinnamon roll at Dominique Ansel consists of a light cinnamon chiffon cake, honeycrisp apple compote and a mascarpone mousse.

He finishes with a spoonful of key lime pie that’s about as wide and tall as his mouth.

“The meringue is fluffy and marshmallowy,” he says, “and the curd is not overly tart.”

Riding high on sugar, we duck into the limo on our way back to the Venetian.

“Hey, it’s me!” he says excitedly. He’s pointing to his life-size cutout outside the Pizza Cake restaurant at Harrah’s. “I still get such a kick out of seeing that.”

I ask him how he feels about being a celebrity chef, and he shakes his head with a laugh.

Buddy Valastro poses with a photo of himself outside the Venetian.

Buddy Valastro poses with a photo of himself outside the Venetian.

“I never thought of myself as a celebrity,” he says. “It’s good for business, but nobody’s perfect. We service a lot of people and sometimes it’s an off day, but I only know what I can do and I know my stuff is made with love and integrity.”

He shrugs his shoulders and holds his hands up, just like he does in all the life-size cutouts.

“Hey, there’s nobody harder on Buddy Valastro than Buddy Valastro.”

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