The James Beard Foundation Awards' "America's Classics" category honors timeless restaurants noted for their character.
In this case, it's characters.
The Esposito family, who own Chef Vola's in Atlantic City, are among the Beard's five winners this year and will get their prize in a ceremony May 9 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.
For decades, Chef Vola's was not easy to get into. The unlisted phone number and the general air of secrecy worked to create a quiet buzz that drew eager high-rollers who gave up their comp meals at the casinos just to try to get in. Over the years, the number (609-345-2022) got out. You don't have to be Somebody to get a table.
As Andy Clurfeld of the Asbury Park Press wrote in the Beard's notes:
"Fact is, all are welcome. Once here, you're family. A single serving of the peerless veal chop, done parm-style, feeds, maybe, six. The red gravy is revered, as is the veal swathed in Prosciutto. Ditto the cannellini-green bean salad crowned by cubes of provolone and salami. Frank Sinatra once said he wanted to be buried with one of Chef Vola's banana cream pies.
"In 1982, the Esposito family bought the restaurant from the Vola clan. Today, Louise, along with her husband Mike, son Lou, and nephew Dom work the kitchen and the dining room, an always-humming space in which a Naples-born grandma would feel at home.
"Customers make pilgrimages to eat at Chef Vola's. They come for the people. They come for the food, for dishes that serve as standard-bearers of an Italian-American culinary tradition that may be more loved in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic than anywhere else."
Previous winners over the years include Mustache Bill's Diner of Barnegat Light, John's Roast Pork of South Philly, and the White House Sub Shop of Atlantic City.