We have whisky, wine, women, song, and slot machines. I won't deny it and I won't apologize for it.
— Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson
As much as things have changed in Atlantic City since Prohibition, when Johnson, the inspiration for HBO's Boardwalk Empire, was the political boss who profited from vice, this resort town still relies on those same attractions. Of course, that list should be updated to include Iron Chefs and meatballs. Because over this casino town's recent history of ups and downs, few things have been as steady a draw as celebrity cooks and Italian restaurants.
After a few low-key years on the glitzy new-restaurant front, A.C.'s casino kitchens are back at it this summer with two big names — TV chef Michael Symon, cooking his mamma's old-school Italian (of course) for the Borgata, and Jose Garces making a Shore comeback with two concepts at the Tropicana. However, my best meal in Atlantic City this summer wasn't in a casino at all, but at a three-decade-old classic, Cafe 2825, that recently underwent a subtle but meaningful makeover. The other good news? The booze is flowing in an old Atlantic City warehouse once again. But this time, it's legal.
2825 Atlantic Ave, Atlantic City, 609-344-6913; cafe2825.com
"We needed to make room for the cheeses" is pretty much the best reason I've ever heard for a dining-room renovation. "My father probably wouldn't have approved," said Joe Lautato, referring to his late dad, Sonny, the retired Brooklyn police-officer-turned-bartender with whom he launched Cafe 2825 three decades ago. "He used to say: 'It's an Italian restaurant. People come for the food.' "
But the beauty of the recent revamp at one of Atlantic City's most enduring and beloved independent restaurants is that it really was all about the food. Yes, there were some subtle improvements to the dark and clubby dining room — glass-block windows added to brighten the space, a new ceiling with stained glass, a shortened bar to add more coveted seats, which still number only 48. But the biggest upgrade – gouging out eight extra inches from a wall – will be felt more than seen. It opened up just enough space to allow the giant whole wheels of Pecorino and Parmesan to glide freely through the narrow room atop rolling stools: "Some real Parmigiano-Reggiano?" asks Lautato, appearing beside our table to excavate hunks of the salty, nutty cheese like a knife-wielding cheese miner.
We devoured it with the house-made bread, and it was just the welcoming prelude to an entire meal of delicious dining-room dramatics, from the fresh Caesar to the cacio e pepe, for which house-made bucatini are tossed inside the hollow of a 55-pound Locatelli that had been warmed to optimum coating temperature with a blowtorch. It was easily one of the best I've had, the toothy semolina pasta absorbing the Pecorino's tang and spark of black pepper, without being oily or clumpy. But the most memorable cheese performance was the tableside mozzarella, stretched beside us in a basin of hot water where house-made curds were grated and delicately hand-shaped until a glistening white orb emerged. Sliced into a deconstructed burrata, with warm chunks of mozzarella glazed with creamy house ricotta and a swirl of olive oil, the cheese had a pliant softness and vivid buttermilk sweetness unlike any prefab mozz I've tasted.
It all feels so retro, but the mozzarella process emerged from the kitchen only a few years ago when a loudmouth patron challenged Lautato's claim that he made it. He defiantly brought his curds and a bowl into the dining room for a demonstration – and now 90 percent of his customers order it.
That handcrafted spirit and commitment to quality ingredients are what make the rest of this extensive menu of Italian American classics well worth exploring. The outstanding Sunday gravy is filled with Brooklyn sausage, a hunk of tender beef braciola, and a huge meatball served beside rounds of house-extruded rigatoni. The massive veal chop Milanese was golden crisp but tender. And then there was my new favorite old seafood dish – plump butterflied shrimp baked oreganata-style beneath seasoned crumbs of the house bread – that exemplified a rare finesse, even a lightness, to the old-school cooking here. Lautato's personable wife, Ginny, oversees the cocktails and regional Italian wine list. It's no wonder devoted customers plan to make reservations 14 days in advance (the maximum window allowed) and why Cafe 2825, despite Atlantic City's sometimes rocky fortunes, continues to thrive and keep its big cheeses wheeling forward.
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, 1 Borgata Way, Atlantic City, 609-317-1000; theborgata.com
Michael Symon acknowledges it might seem weird that he's the "most emotional I've ever been about a restaurant" with Angeline. After all, this latest addition to his 21-restaurant empire is his biggest, at 220 seats, and it's also in partnership with the Borgata casino: "But I look down and see my mother's name on the floor and say, 'We can't f- this up.' "
Well, he could. Atlantic City casinos have a long history of Italian kitchens come and gone. But Symon is a magnetic draw as the affable fedora-topped Iron Chef who talks food to America each weekday on ABC's The Chew with down-to-earth Cleveland charm. And there was big money behind the renovation that turned the old SeaBlue into a brassy expanse of dark wood and white tile, with cushy brown-leather banquettes and a glassed-in wall of wine. Angeline feels retro swanky, but in an accessible way, with Symon's wife, designer Liz Symon, even channeling his childhood living room in one corner with lacy curtains and curio shelves of knickknacks.
The menu travels a nostalgic path, too, drawing on dishes from the Sicilian side of his mom's family, albeit with prime ingredients – and posh casino prices. It's tricky to combine a sense of hominess with Borgata luxury and risks feeling both like an overly safe concept from a star chef, and competing with everyone else's own red-gravy memories. For the most part, though, the effort tastes genuine, as Symon's casino crew does his family recipes justice, from his Grandma Concetta's ricotta cavatelli in a Sunday gravy filled with shredded, slow-stewed pork to the delicate little arancini risotto balls stuffed with smoked mozzarella. Angeline's lasagna – a 10-layer production of béchamel and Bolognese slipped between thin egg noodles — is an elegant reply to the mostly sloppy lasagna universe. If only ours wasn't a little too dry, it would have been a new favorite.
But with an excellent Rob Roy cocktail mellowing the mood with a "Turin" twist from Italian vermouth and nutty nocino, I turned to some excellent seafood entrees. A fluke piccata showcased some outstanding local fish, lighter than usual because it wasn't dredged in flour. A thick swordfish steak was perfectly grilled over live oak fires and super-moist beneath a citrusy agrodolce of Marsala-plumped raisins, capers, pine nuts, and mint that was pure Sicilian tradition. (The cannoli custard's distinct orange flavor was Sicilian, too; unfortunately, its shell was turning soggy.)
The best dessert, in fact, salutes Symon's hometown, a tall sponge cake of mascarpone fluff jeweled with strawberries inspired by the cassata from Corbo's bakery, the ubiquitous party finale of his Cleveland youth. As emotional cooking goes, it was a lighthearted slice of sweet childhood, updated for a casino splurge.
Olón and Okatshe
Tropicana, 2831 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, olonrestaurant.com, 609-340-4050; okatsherestaurant.com, 609-340-4053
Jose Garces is hiding in a secret slice of Tokyo behind the shelves of a Japanese candy store. No, wait, he's chillin' with Ecuadoran ceviche behind gauzy white curtains on a breezy terrace overlooking the Atlantic City Boardwalk. No, wait, you're not likely to actually see Philly's Iron Chef in the flesh. But after a 2½-year absence following the shutdown of the Revel casino, this town is definitely feeling the heat of some genuine Garces flavors again – and Casinoland is better off for it. Two of the better meals I ate this Shore season were at the Tropicana, where Garces and Co. have a pair of new restaurants and a bar.
I'm not a big fan of the Trop itself, which, despite renovations, still reeks of cigarette smoke and last-chance perfume. But once you make it across the casino floor, Garces' team (including New York's dash design) has created such evocative spaces with Olón, his coastal Latin seafood grill, and Okatshe, a Japanese izakaya hidden behind a candy store's faux-shelf wall, that the casino melts away, and the smells of ocean breezes and a Japanese coal-fired grill take over.
The restaurants, which flank the double-sided Bar Olón, are obviously distinct. But in many ways, they share menu DNA from the long-closed Chifa, whose Latin-Asian fusion concept has been unraveled here back to its continents of origin. There are Chifa's yucca flour cheese buns (pan de bono) welcoming guests to Olón, along with the anticucho skewers of grilled prawns with crispy chorizo, plus citrusy ceviches – my favorites a tumble of ruby tuna in a coconut-lime puree dusted with black sesame, and a new creation splashed in saffron seafood marinade inspired by paella spiked with Peruvian chilies. At Okatshe, Chifa's crispy chicken wings make a glorious comeback in their crackly lemongrass crust, as do the deep-fried nubs of boneless pork ribs glazed in black vinegar and five spice.
As a concept, locals will inevitably compare the 80-seat Okatshe to Michael Schulson's nine-year-old Izakaya in the Borgata, which also combines sushi with yakitori skewers, sake cocktails, and other Japanese gastropub nibbles. I prefer Okatshe's hideway street-scene ambiance, but the mostly standard sushi selection there wasn't especially impressive – including some colorful casino-themed rolls whose tempura crunchies lacked fresh snap. The binchotan-grilled meat skewers were very good (especially the short ribs and bacon), but the yakitori glaze was a hint too sweet for the seafood. Among my other favorite bites: the creamy-crunchy takoyaki seafood balls, the tender pork belly chashu buns, and a Tokyo-style ramen bowl hearty with meats and mushrooms and a spicy miso-broth savor.
Overall, I found Olón the more compelling experience, both with its grand ocean view and a wide breadth of clean Latin flavors well executed by chef de cuisine Maria Schmidt, from the hearts of palm salad tossed with coconut, lime, and ginger to a delicate fish fry marinated in adobo and yogurt, as well as the empanadas, a nod to Rosa Blanca (Chifa's now-closed successor), that aren't to be missed. The a la carte items off the wood-fired grill were super-pricey but still worthwhile, including a tender cut of flavorful Wagyu skirt steak and a whole branzino that was butterflied open, marinated in a garlicky green salsa criolla, then roasted to flaky succulence in a basket over a fire.
With an exotic Pisco cocktail in hand and a silky chocolate dessert with creamy cashew sauce and crunchy sweet potato chips for dipping to finish, I was content. This Atlantic City Boardwalk view, courtesy of Team Garces, was as sweet as it's been in years.
Little Water Distillery
807 Baltic Ave., (off Lexington Avenue), Atlantic City, 609-344-7867; littlewaterdistillery.com
As fans of Boardwalk Empire know, Atlantic City and booze have a long history together – albeit one colored by the illegal bootlegging activities of local boss Enoch "Nucky" Johnson during Prohibition. So there's an extra wink to the note that Little Water Distillery is the city's first "legal" distillery in nearly a century. Tucked behind the roll-up garage doors of an old storage warehouse in the Bungalow Park neighborhood within eyeshot of the Borgata, you can see racks of oak barrels aging rums and whiskies at Little Water, the English translation of the Leni-Lenape word Absecon, the island upon which it stands and which draws from the same water source that makes Atlantic City's bread so famous.
It's the creation of brothers Mark Ganter, a former Total Wine exec, and Eric Ganter, a former computer-science teacher at Ventnor Middle School who's become the fledgling operation's self-taught still master. And they're starting with baby steps. Like a lot of new distilleries without the resources of well-aged liquor stock, some of what's in the bottles there is not yet made on site. The 48 Blocks vodka, available only in A.C., is outsourced and rectified on site "with some additional secret minerals," says Eric. So is the Whitecap whiskey, a light amber blend of sweet corn, spicy rye, and smooth wheat that was produced at Davis Valley Distillery in southwest Virginia. "We had a hand in the recipe," Eric adds.
The silver Liberty rum, on the other hand, is made on site with American sugarcane molasses, and I found it to be impressively smooth, with a distinctive note of butterscotch sweetness that's perfect for cocktails (and affordable at $26). The bracing Whitecap ($29) is a nice blender, too, especially when mixed with the sweet-tart watermelon-basil shrub (one of several here) made on site by Little Water "Mixtress" Frankie DiBona for a Girls in Their Summer Clothes cocktail. The drinks are sold for $7 at the little bar in the far corner within sight of the gleaming new still. Or you can pair your drink with one of the Rocky Patel Nicaraguan cigars sold inside and head out to a back garden patio where modern-day big shots can puff away, sip their local booze, and practice their player poses for a lucky night down the street at the Borgata.