A Fairy Tale In Reverse…Then Back Again? Luke Palladino at Harrah’s

Once upon a time, there was a young, hopeful chef who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. To honor his heritage, he set off for Italy to seek his culinary fortune. In a few years, with hard work, he was rewarded with the honored titles of Executive Chef and Partner at Venice’s internationally celebrated Ristorante al Covo. Then, one day, after meeting the President of the Slow Food Movement, a mysterious voice called to him: “Luke, I am the Voice of Culinary Wisdom. You must return to America and bring back what you have learned. It is your destiny.” Confused, but heeding the kind voice, he returned to his homeland. Years later, fortune once again smiled upon him, as he was happily opening restaurants for other famous chefs in such kingdoms as Las Vegas and Aspen, to great success. But one day, again, the Voice spoke to him: “You have done very well. Now you must do the same in New Jersey.” After realizing the Voice was not coming off a three-day bender nor pulling his leg, he decided to heed it once again-after all, it had brought him fame and fortune in the past. So off he went to the kingdom of Atlantic City, where a large casino named the Borgata welcomed him. First, he opened one restaurant there. Then two. Then three. Soon, people from all over America were enlisting his help with their eateries. After a time, the young chef didn’t feel so young anymore-he felt bogged down and unhappy.  He was always on an airplane, flying off to distant lands. He wasn’t cooking in his kitchen anymore. And the kingdom of Atlantic City was going through some hard times-the people didn’t have the money to come and eat out as much. The chef was so distraught, he called upon the Voice again to help him. “Close all of your restaurants.”  All of them?  “Yes. Then take a break, and decide what it is that you really want.” The chef decided he wanted to cook again. Good food, local and simple. So, he did close all three places in the kingdom of Atlantic City; then, he opened a very small, 30-seat trattoria in the nearby fiefdom of Northfield. The chef was happy. He was cooking again, just the way he wanted to. The people loved to come to his little trattoria, and would bring bottles of wine and eat and talk and laugh with the chef. And they all lived happily ever after.

Well, maybe that’s not all. It looks like the Voice might be calling Luke Palladino again. South Jersey’s almost-a-celebrity chef seems to want to give the big time in Atlantic City another try-this time at Harrah’s. We were invited to the official ribbon-cutting and soft-opening of his namesake restaurant on June 4th  (Disclosure: yes, it was a media invite and a freebie): and we have to admit, this is some big South Jersey foodie news, and we  were almost breathless with anticipation of it.

We did get off to an odd start, and can’t say that we were all that pleased with the host/hostess team. After the ribbon-cutting, John and I were chatting with a few acquaintances, and we were all (I thought) motioned to follow one of them; as we entered into the restaurant, the door was promptly closed in my face…hmmmm. Unsure, we followed them into the dining room anyway (the hostess did see that were were all talking together in a group, right?), where we found that folks were only being seated 4 per table-but we were left to figure this out for ourselves. On her way back, I asked the hostess what the situation was, and she said, “Oh, wait here…”  It felt awkward to wait in the middle of the dining room, so we sidled over out of the way near the bar. This was a good chance to really look the place over, and we liked what we saw. The décor throughout is a cool, understated black and white, with a few warm touches (such as the “in bocca al lupo” in calligraphy on the upper wall, meaning, “good luck”); but the coolest thing by far is the open kitchen in the center of it all. Now, I know we’ve all seen the open kitchen model in everything from the classiest joint in your hometown  to your local Carrabba’s…but this was a bit different. The cheese/bread table stood as a practical kitchen station and a decorative centerpiece to entire the dining room; and only a few feet away was the chef  himself at work, standing outside the cooking area, chatting with anyone who decided to come up to him-all without missing a beat. The whole effect was like watching a maestro conduct an orchestra.

A short while later, the hostess returned with another couple in tow who looked almost as confused as we did as she again motioned us all to follow her. We did, and soon realized we were to be seated together, so introductions were in order. We ended up breaking bread with a wonderful couple, Rob Rossiello (of Casino Connection magazine) and Laura Chinnis. They are as  passionate about food as we are, and a lot of fun to hang out with. Thankfully (after the awkward start), we were introduced to what turned out to be a  friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable serving “team” (a head waitperson, who took the orders and answered all of the questions, flanked by the occasional appearance of  two “assistants”) that got us settled right away with menus and drinks. Normally, I don’t really go for a “pre-dinner” cocktail at the table, especially if I expect to have wine with the meal; but the list was so intriguing I felt I had to try something. I decided to order a “Sgroppino” (Belvedere Vodka, Prosecco, and Limoncello) and found it to be a nice tart, dry, and elegant little glass of bubbly that cut the richness of the appetizers that were to come nicely. We were also impressed by the list of craft brews available-from Flying Fish’s Exit 4 to rare Italian craft brews (leave the Bud-like Peroni behind, please!) John couldn’t resist ordering the Bruton Baladin “Norra”, an Egyptian Spiced Ale: it had a Belgian-style quality to it (like a barley-wine), with the gorgeous  aroma of exotic spices. We sipped and nibbled on soft cibatta bread accompanied by an onion marmalade-not a bad start.

Then, it was showtime. We were informed that we’d be given a selection of small plates to share that Palladino wanted us to try-but we weren’t prepared to be bombarded.  The Olives Frittes (Sicilian olives stuffed with Marscapone and Gorgonzola cheeses, walnuts and sage, then lightly breaded and fried) began as a crisp treat on the outside, then moved on to the sour brine of the vinegared olive, and ended in a creamy finish from the cheese -simply one perfect little bite. The Frittelle were gorgeously crisp squares of spaghetti, salami, and Pecorino cheese, like a little fried cake. Not enough “little fried bites”? The Crisp Mortadella and Caciocavallo (a cheese similar to provolone) were yet another salty-creamy-crisp combination, with the added benefit of being served atop a “salsa verde aoli”. However, the kitchen does do something other than fry things. The Mushroom and Taleggio Crespelle consisted of a baked crepe filled with Taleggio cheese and wild mushrooms, drizzled with a 15-year old balsamic vinegar which was  rich delicious, and earthy; the Seared Ahi Tuna (served with Cannellini Bean Insalata and Calebrese Chili Aoli), was a simply-dressed take on a gorgeous piece of tuna. Yet I think what had the most “OMG”-factor were the more seasonal selections. Crisp NJ Squash Blossoms were filled with corn, ricotta and Parmesan and then-you guessed it- floured and fried; yet somehow they seemed light as air. And the NJ Asparagus Sformato (a luscious flan-like dish making heavenly use of shaved asparagus,and  finished off with a “truffled egg insalata” that acts as a sauce) was voted as the  star of the small plates at our table, hands down.

It was time to remind us that we were, in fact, in an Italian-inspired restaurant: therefore, we were then pummeled with handcrafted pastas. The Potato Gnocchi arrived looking like a typical dish that you’d find anywhere: prepared with peas, prosciutto, cream, and Parmesano Reggiano. Ah, but God is in the details, my friend. The peas were the sweet, fresh ones found only in the spring; the gnocchi somehow managed to avoid the lead-pellet syndrome that most potato pastas fall victim to. Simply delicious. The second-runner up in this cavalcade of pasta joy was the Burrata Ravioli. Filled with Burrata mozzarella and served with a Sungold tomato puree and basil, it gave the impression to your taste buds that  you were royalty, eating one of the most prized dishes in the world- but with the feel of Mom’s Sunday gravy. The winner, however, was the least-fussed with dish we’d had yet: Fazzoletti (“silk handkerchiefs”) dressed simply with NJ basil pesto and served with fava beans. With pasta as cloud-like and delicate as that, why drown it out? It was the perfect presentation to show off a completely  flawless pasta.

After a performance like that, the entrees were going to be a tough act to follow. Rob and Laura both had the Sicilian Mixed Grill: a gorgeous skin-on fillet of NJ Arctic Char, shrimp, and scallops, tossed with oregano breadcrumbs, pan-seared until crisp, then served with a fresh zucchini “trifolati” ( the technique of slicing and sauteeing in olive oil and garlic, then seasoning simply with salt, pepper, and parsley) and a lemon-marjoram dipping sauce. To my surprise, John ordered the Veal Saltimbocca.  This Roman dish has been one of the “done to death” classics found in almost any Italian-American restaurant, and I wondered why John was playing it so “safe” all of a sudden; but once it arrived, I realized the method to his madness. What better way to check out the full landscape of the kitchen’s skills than by seeing what they do with a well-known, already popular dish? It was a straightforward Saltimbocca (procuitto, sage, white wine pan glaze): but it may be the best version we’ve ever had. The tender-perfect veal combined with a beautiful balance of flavors between the prosciutto and the pan sauce (which was neither wimpy and weak or too heavy and rich, as many versions turn out to be), and, taking a more rustic turn, was served over farro polenta (a nuttier, heartier, more “ancient” kind of polenta). When my Pesce Al Cartoccio arrived, however, I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed. The promise on the menu was that it would be a “gift-wrapped” package of roasted Sungold tomatoes, Gaeta olives, garlic, parsley, chilies, basil, and saffron potatoes-something spectacular. What arrived was a plastic bag plunked unceremoniously my plate, and I was reminded of those “easy cooking, easy cleanup” Saran Wrap commercials. Looking at everyone else’s plates, I felt, well, a bit cheated. Yes, it was fresh and tasty, but I wondered that if I happened to have these ingredients on hand at home that it wouldn’t be much different than a fast, no-fuss weeknight meal.

It was easy to find consolation in the desserts, however, and we had a generous selection sent to our table.  As moist and “rummy” as the rum cake was, no one at our table was a big fan of rum cake in general;  if you happen to be one, I’d say this would make you pretty happy. There were biscotti-  good biscotti, but they were, well…simply biscotti.  The zeppoles on the other hand, would send anyone into orbit at first bite: light and fluffy on the inside, yet with crispy fried goodness on the outside. The top pick of the bunch was definitely the chocolate pudding tart. Simply a wallop of deep, dark chocolate pudding almost crowding out the cookie crumb crust underneath, with a bit of whipped cream and fresh berries to cut down on the richness of it all- definitely a grownup’s chocolate pudding.

There were a few additional flubs that night: my coffee arrived almost cold, even though the service was warm, gracious, and well-timed. And the Dali-like “branches” of prosciutto-wrapped truffle-butter bread sticks (anyone see the movie The Linguine Incident?) that arrived with the small plates seemed a bit awkward and gimmicky; but then again, it was too easy to forgive that fact, as they just tasted so damn good. Let’s face it: any opening night is going to have its kinks to work out. So much went right that night that we were instantly (“poof!”) turned into huge fans of this chef and his team. Although this new venture  is probably not the end of Luke Palladino’s tale (he claims to have a few ideas in the works with Caesar’s for the future), we certainly left feeling that “happily ever after” vibe.

Luke Palladino – Harrah’s Resort, 777 Harrah’s Boulevard, Atlantic City.  609.441.5576.

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