The voice on the other end of the line was suddenly gruff, almost angry. He'd taken my reservation moments before --- with less than 24 hours notice, I could have a table at 5:30pm or 9:30pm and that's it --- but I was no longer his friend. I was a potential impostor.
I meant to bumble out the name of my former co-extern who recommended the restaurant to me, but the man's voice made me nervous that maybe I knew the wrong person, or that he'd take away our table, and I forgot her name. I'm sure I sounded like an idiot answering what was clearly an innocent question.
But this is the magic of Chef Vola's in Atlantic City. Your average casino-goer doesn't know about it. And why would he? This little Italian restaurant is nestled away in the basement of a random house way down the strip, past the Tropicana. You can't find them on OpenTable. They don't have a MenuPage. They have a Yelp page, but you can tell the management's not thrilled about it. Their website is bizarre --- there's a password required to obtain any real information and the front page warns, "The phone number and address cannot be obtained from this web site."
Given all this, naturally I was a little freaked out when I got the third-degree on the phone. After blubbering out some desperate and mistaken version of the name "Kristen," the guy on the other end of the line began explaining the rules to me. BYOB. Cash Only. Be on time. I should already be in Atlantic City now, because they won't wait.
We didn't make them wait. BF and I arrived almost fifteen minutes before our reservation, but a few parties must have been more freaked out about timing than we were and were already seated. We brought a bottle of Malbec and settled in for an experiential dining treat.
Our waitress began by describing almost the entire contents of the menu from memory. Everything she said sounded wonderful; partly because Italian food is universally pleasing and partly because it was amazing she'd memorized the whole menu. We started with an arugula salad with goat cheese, dried cranberries, tomatoes, pine nuts, and a balsamic fig reduction. We split a side of linguine (BF had fra diavolo sauce, I had bolognese) and broccoli rabe (a little bitter for my taste). BF got the fish of the day - some kind of white fish in a puttanesca sauce. I got red snapper in a cognac pesto cream sauce with jumbo lump crabmeat on top. We ate a lot of Italian bread.
Our main dishes were pretty decent. I realized after one bite of the snapper that I'd made a mistake ordering fish in a traditional Italian restaurant; I think I would have been better off ordering a dish with beef, veal, or chicken---anything more traditionally Northern Italian. BF liked his fish, but I had the same reaction of longing for something that once lived above ground and was slaughtered by someone's Italian country cousin. I didn't reveal my mild displeasure to the wait staff because Chef Vola's seems like the kind of place were someone would get slapped upside the head if a patron was unhappy. The service was that excellent. I didn't want a new meal because the mistake was mine, so I just smiled and said it was great. The crab meat was excellent, at least.
Dessert, however, required absolutely no embellishment to induce an over-the-top reaction of gratitude. I ordered the butterscotch ricotta cheese cake, which had some kind of booze in the graham cracker crust and was served warm. It was probably one of the top five best desserts I've ever had, as evidenced by the fact that it still tasted AWESOME even after all the food we ate for dinner. We almost passed on dessert in an attempt to be responsible, but DO NOT MAKE THAT MISTAKE. ORDER DESSERT.
The bill at the end of the night arrived in a wooden cigar box with "Chef Vola's" printed on the front. We were repeatedly encouraged not to rush in our payment and to take all the time we need.
For the two of us, our check was a little over $100. Relatively reasonable for an appetizer, two entrees, two side dishes, and a dessert at a restaurant like this. We could have cut almost $30 from the bill by splitting an entree; the main dishes were outrageously huge and could easily, easily feed two hungry people, who would be none the wiser that their portions had been halved.
We walked out of the restaurant feeling full, happy, dizzy with wine and good food, and happily keeping a new secret safe from the casino tourists.
But not from you.
111 S. Albion Place
Atlantic City, NJ