The past few weeks have been like a dream for Louise Esposito, who, along with her husband Michael and sons Michael Jr. and Louis, owns the iconic Chef Vola's restaurant in Atlantic City.
"That this happened to us, out of the whole country of restaurants, is so exciting I still can't believe it," said Louise, an animated blond beauty who looks a decade younger than her 62 years. "This" is winning the Oscar of the food world, a James Beard Foundation America's Classic Award saluting "Restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved in their regions for quality food that reflects the character of their community."
Awarded annually to just five American restaurants, past winners have included White House Subs in 2000, also in A.C., and, last year, another Jersey classic, Mustache Bill's Diner, in Barnegat Light.
For Chef Vola's legions of fans, the Espositos' national recognition is no surprise. "A lot of places claim to be a 'family restaurant,' but at Chef Vola's you really feel like you're part of the family. Best veal Milanese I've ever had," said Medford, N.J.'s, Lauralee Dobbins. She's been tucking in at Chef Vola's for nearly 20 years.
Esposito, who along with her husband hails from South Philly (she's 13th and Packer, he's 21st and Snyder), spent two days in Manhattan leading up to the May 9 awards, rubbing elbows with the likes of celeb chefs Emeril and Bobby Flay, hobnobbing at fancy cocktail parties and even strutting down the red carpet before the big show at Lincoln Center in New York.
The family was photographed (Louise bought a new gown for the occasion), interviewed and, when the time came, got up in front of 1,600 people to relay a one-minute thank-you speech.
"Cameras are going, I'm trying to stand up straight, look taller, keep smiling, say the right thing," Louise Esposito said. "It was all like a dream. Everyone was so wonderful to us. It was really something."
Esposito was still flying high the weekend after the awards in the face of a typical Friday night crowd at the restaurant she's owned with her family since 1982. The effusive one in the partnership, Louise is out front greeting the guests, many by name, many with a standing reservation each week. She manages the staff, juggles the reservations and keeps a close eye on the food coming out of the kitchen.
She's also baked all of the restaurant's 25 or so homemade desserts herself. Her husband Michael is the creative force in the kitchen, although his quiet presence is felt in the dining room as well. "We all bring different skills to the table," said Louise. "One of us is always here, no matter what. We've all done every job, and can jump in anywhere we're needed."
If you've never been to Chef Vola's or even heard of it, that's no wonder. It's the kind of place that insiders kept to themselves for decades. The number is still unlisted, although now easy to find online.
Located in the nondescript basement of a rowhouse on South Albion Place, a tiny way street in the shadow of the Tropicana, Chef Vola's has no liquor license and no sign out front. Its green awnings are the only clue that something special might be going on inside. A statue of the Blessed Mother keeps a benevolent eye on the doorway.
Opened during Prohibition in 1921 by Pina Vola as a boardinghouse with a little restaurant in the basement, Chef Vola's was a locals' haunt, a place for simple Southern Italian comfort food, nothing fancy.
The Espositos bought the business the first time they ate there. Both Louise and Michael came from restaurant roots - family-owned neighborhood spots in South Philly proffering meatballs and sausage and roast beef sandwiches.
When they met as teenagers, their spooning was usually done with a spoon, and fork, in hand. "All the other kids were going to dances, to the movies," recalled Louise. "We were going out to eat."
Food was always at the heart of their family life, evidence of the warmth, love and traditional Italian culture they both hold dear.
The couple relocated with their two young sons to the Shore in 1976, with Michael commuting to Philly until snagging a job as chef at the gourmet II Verdi at the Trop. Louise worked as a restaurant supervisor at Harrah's. The problem was, they worked opposing hours and never saw each other.
"We missed each other, missed our family time together," she recalled. Louise took matters into her own hands and in March 1982 started saying a novena to St. Jude for nine weeks, praying for the family to be together.
She and Michael tried Chef Vola's on a rare shared Monday night off and, before they left for home, had bought the restaurant. "We had two boys in private school, a mortgage. I was scared to death. Michael said, 'Don't worry. Everything is going to be OK.' "
And it was.
Michael made the menu his own, bringing a new level of sophistication to the Vola's crowd, along with recipes culled from his grandparents and Louise's.
He swabs pasta with more than just homemade red sauce, including what may be the best clam sauce in recent memory, bright with fresh herbs and roughly chopped bits of Atlantic surf clam. An average of seven kinds of fresh fish are offered nightly.
The veal chop, a massive specimen, is pounded thin and served Milanese style, topped with field greens or parmigiana, is still the kitchen's most popular order.
Everything is served a la carte, and prices are on par with most casino restaurants: $7.95-$17.95 for appetizers; entrées in the $18.95-$37.95 range. But the portions are huge, and you can still get a half chicken, broiled Italian-style, for $12.95 if that's that you want. The average check for a multicourse meal is in the $50 range - a great bang for the buck, considering the quality.
Only the freshest ingredients are allowed in the door, locally sourced whenever possible.
"Every cucumber, every head of lettuce, every piece of fish, we check it," said Louise. "We're not a restaurant where you come in, eat, pay your check and leave. As soon as you walk in the door, we want you to feel warm, like part of the family."
Many of her customers would walk over hot coals for a slab of one of Louise's homemade desserts, including airy ricotta cheesecakes ("I use one less yolk and fold in extra whites to make it light") flavored with the likes of peach schnapps, butterscotch and rum, and limoncello atop a homemade lemon cookie crust.
Her four-step banana cream pie was the first thing Frank Sinatra hankered for when he came to town, such a fave that he once said he wanted to be buried with one.
All the recipes are closely guarded secrets, family treasures that add another layer of mystique to the Chef Vola's experience.
If you thought it was tough to score a reservation at Chef Vola's before all the James Beard hoopla, expect to wait even longer now that the word's out.
But get on the books and, when the time comes, savor an American classic at its best. By the end of your meal, you won't just feel full; you'll feel warm, safe, like one of the family. And what better reason to come back for seconds?