In a casino with restaurants branded by Iron Chefs Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Geoffrey Zakarian, it’s difficult to keep a high profile.
But there’s also something cool about being the best-kept secret. And that is exactly what Fornelletto at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
Acclaimed chef Stephen Kalt may not have the popularity of those other chefs, but is every bit — if not more — talented in the kitchen. The former executive chef of Wynn Las Vegas restaurant Corsa Cucina and co-creator of New York City’s Spartina — which during its reign was named “Top 5 Neighborhood Restaurants in New York by Food & Wine magazine has created an Italian experience that is equally eclectic and challenging as it is approachable. He has also created one of the best restaurants in the cituy.
Fornelletto, located in the former Ombra location, maintains the wine cellar theme. Walk down the stairs through the cavern-like space and arrive in a restaurant literally surrounded by wine (see sidebar). A cool bar features top-notch bartenders mixing specialty cocktails. And the restaurant is broken into several intimate space and private dining areas that make you feel like you have been transported to a hidden gem in Napa Valley.
Celebrating its five-year anniversary, Fornelleto has evolved into the restaurant Kalt always envisioned.
“All things, when they grow up, they get steadier, and the focus is clearer and the machine runs tighter,” Kalt says. “We have a very good relationship with Boyd Gaming and Borgata, and we operate the place in a very efficient and thoughtful manner. I think I am happy that people enjoy it and give us such positive response. We focus on Italian regional cooking and throw a little Italian-American cooking in there so everyone is happy.”
General Manager Robert McIntosh and Executive Chef Jason Olson’s main responsibility is to make sure Kalt’s vision is executed to perfection. And recent visits prove that they are not letting him down. Superb service ranks among the best in the city, as the entire staff seems knowledgeable about every aspect of the restaurant.
But all of that — as good as it is — pales in comparison to Kalt’s and Olson’s culinary creations and ability to please all palates.
“Jason has been working with me for 10 years,” Kalt says. “He was executive sous chef for me at Wynn and then moved to Atlantic City to start the project and has been there ever since. He is not only a great employee but a close friend … a great guy and really capable chef who proves his worth daily. I work well with Robert and his entire team. A lot of people have been there since we started, and I think that makes a big difference. I believe that everyone there intends to come in and make Fornelletto a special place every day. We have done extraordinary things that have helped capture people’s imaginations and transport them to an experience that either meets or exceeds expectations. You walk down the stairs and you’re in another world. You could be anywhere, but you happen to be under a casino where people, by intention, give you a special experience.”
One of the most appealing aspects of Fornelletto is that you can go there and sit at the bar and experience their great cheese and antipasti selections while sipping a cocktail or venturing through their insane wine list, or you can experience a full dinner.
Fornelletto offers a full Mozzarella di Bufala/Burrata Bar with the best burrata this side of Italy. Selections are priced at $12 for 3 ounces or $17 for 4.5 ounces and accompaniments include eight choices such as heirloom cherry tomatoes, white balsamic-marinated butternut squash, prosciutto di Parma, eggplant caponata and more.
Meat ($8 to $21) and other cheese selections ($12 to $25) change daily and are priced by how may you select, but it’s the appetizer selection that will blow your mind. You would have to visit 10 times to try everything.
“I think the bar is important because we don’t want people to feel pressured into having a big meal and spending a lot of money,” Kalt says. “So if you want to come down and have some arancini and a glass of wine, that’s pretty sweet.”
Superb choices include the whipped ricotta and sweet garlic crostini ($9); the 9th Street Italian Market Chopped Salad ($14) with soppressata. Tagiasca olives, chick peas, cucumber, tomato, radicchio and pecorino cheese; Arancini al Ragu ($12), Sicilian rice balls stuffed with veal and prosciutto ragu and peas; shrimp scampi ($17) with garlic butter, white wine, tomato and pearl pasta; mussels with pancetta, Tuscan kale and Calabrian chilis; and chicken hash crostini ($12) with chicken liver, potato, onion and fried egg.
“The issue for me is to how to make everything great and keep guests happy,” Kalt says. “Yes, we have chicken hash with a fried egg on it and that’s not for everyone. We know some people might not get excited with some of the esoteric dishes. But if a hundred people want some type of parmesan every night, they aren’t wrong. That’s what they like.”
There’s also a selection of eight Neapolitan-style pizzas ($15 to $19) from a stellar Margherita to Funghi with oyster mushrooms and fresh goat cheese to the Brooklyn with meatballs.
Things get more difficult to decide as the meal progresses since there are more than a dozen pasta choices of pasta dishes and at least another dozen meat and seafood selections.
All of the pasta is made in-house, with standouts including potato gnocchi ($25) with gorgonzola dolce, red grapes and black pepper that may be the best gnocchi in the city; the Carbonara ($27) with guanciale — an Italian cured meat — cipollini onions, pecorino, black pepper and spaghetti that is the best Carbonara we ever has the pleasure of devouring; and veal “Osso Bucco” ravioli ($28) with port wine reduction and parmigiano reggiano that may top all of the others.
For meat and seafood, choices are endless and include veal ($34) with San Marzano tomatoes, fiore di latte mozzarella and parmigiano reggiano; Tuscan fried chicken ($24) with chestnut honey mustard, whipped potatoes and gravy; veal Milanese ($34) with arugula, Bosc pears, capers, brown butter and balsamic; Venetian calves liver ($24) with sweet and sour cipollini onions and organic polenta; plus a variety of fish ranging from trout to monkfish as well as steaks and veal chops.
That eclectic menu is what makes Fornelletto appealing. If you can’t find something you like, then you might as well stay home.
“As a chef, you are kidding yourself if you think the whole world thinks like you do,” Kalt says. “I am an sophisticated diner, a traveler and a student of food, so it’s not reasonable to think the average person has the same palate. And to be stubborn and think they do is what will hurt you. I believe some great food comes from wonderful childhood memories and we try to deliver some of those great experiences in the restaurant business. We all grew up with an American take on Italian food. And I support that and think it’s great. But we can also show diners experiences they might not have had if they are willing to give it a try. The truth is we have amazing spaghetti and meatballs with fresh handmade meatballs as well as scallops with pickled beets. We think we can please everyone.”
Despite how good Fornelletto is, Kalt has even higher expectations.
“I would like to build more of a trusting relationship with guests so they can try some things so we can be more ambitious with our cooking,” says Kalt, who lives in Las Vegas but travels to Borgata a couple of times per month and communicates with his staff daily. “I want to do this little by little and do that through communication with our staff and guests. We will do more wine dinners and reach out and offer guests some even more special and different kind of experiences. I am as involved as possible and I like having my hands in the mix. Left to their own devices, they are capable people, but I know I bring an influence in a very positive way that I enjoy tremendously.”
Get a drink at Fornelletto
One of the most impressive wine lists in New Jersey can be found at Fornelletto. Built by former Wine Director Anjoleena Griffin-Holst and chef/partner Stephen Kalt, there are literally thousands of bottles surrounding diners as they feast on Kalt’s creations.
“I am extremely interested in and love wine,” Kalt says. “Borgata has made a massive commitment to wine on property and in Fornelletto. I would speak to Anjoleena about things I like that I found and she would tell me things she found. It’s an amazing wine program and a very deep list. You sit in a dining room surrounded by thousands of bottles of wine. That massive commitment is something unique because Borgata can afford to have that depth and breadth. It’s also unique because the entire restaurant gives a casual vibe but yet we deliver fine dining.”
Have dessert, too
All desserts ($9 to $12) are made in-house and none will disappoint you. Current choices include pistachio cake ($12) with Meyer lemon and Sicilian orange; fritelle, brioche sugar donuts with raspberry preserves; tiramisu; Neapolitan cake with a layer of devil’s chocolate cake with strawberry, vanilla served with pistachio gelato; chocolate hazelnut mousse with whipped vanilla cream and crushed pretzels; housemade gelato and sorbet; espresso crème brulee and vanilla cheesecake.