Grotto Ristorante, unlike most of Atlantic City's Italian casino restaurants, isn't pretentious. Its menu doesn't try to wow you with dishes you may have never heard of and the servers don't fillet branzino tableside. Grotto is about serving simple, well-executed Italian classics for the masses.

Located right on the casino floor, this casual, elevated restaurant continues the amazing transformation of the Golden Nugget from Trump Marina. Following the openings of the more pricey Chart House seafood restaurant and Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse, Grotto joins Michael Patrick's Brasserie as another relatively affordable restaurant from Landry's Inc. It is the fourth Grotto to open in the country.

The restaurant's decor, while new and attractive, is like the menu: appealing yet not overbearing. With Fellini-inspired hand-painted murals and a trattoria ambiance, tables are relatively on top of each other as gamblers stroll by and slot machines jingle nearby. This is not the place to go if you are looking for a quiet, romantic dinner.

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It is the place to go if you are looking for familiar Italian food cooked to perfection at prices that will leave you extra money to hit the tables.

"It's a pretty boisterous place, but that's part of the fun," General Manager Kara Lacko says. "The whole idea is to create a vibe that will attract locals. We know we are going to be busy in the summer - everyone comes to the casinos - but we wanted a place where people can come year-round and find good service, good food and be comfortable, especially with the price point."

Offering lunch and dinner, both sessions feature soups, salads, pizza, pasta and dessert. The big difference is that sandwiches such as the steak and provolone panini ($13.99) with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, imported provolone and basil mayonnaise are only served on the lunch menu, which only has three entrees. The dinner menu boasts about a dozen entrees and quite a few more appetizers.

On a recent visit, it seemed most tables were ordering the thin-crust pizza, particularly the roasted herb chicken pizza ($15.99) with garlic, mozzarella, basil, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and goat cheese made fresh in a wood-burning oven.

On the appetizer side, calamari ($11.99) with a zesty marinara sauce and the antipasta ($14.99) featuring imported meats and cheeses along with roasted veggies are popular, as are a few salads: the spinach and pear ($8.99) with tomatoes, caramelized pecans, gorgonzola and balsamic vinaigrette; and the Italian chopped salad ($15.99) with grilled chicken, prosciutto, gorgonzola, bacon, egg and diced Roma tomatoes.

The pasta dishes are generous and mostly under $20. Two of the exceptions are the penne ($20.99) with sauteed shrimp, asparagus and shaved garlic with a vibrant touch of citrus; and the linguini pescatore ($26.99) with jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams and crab claws with fresh herbs and Roma tomatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. But you can go simple with spaghetti with meat sauce ($17.99) or fettuccini ($16.99) with mushrooms, imported prosciutto and peas in a parmesan cream sauce.

Grotto also has the meat side covered, ranging from the traditional eggplant, chicken and veal parm ($18.99 to $24.99) and chicken Francese ($19.99) to signature items such as capellini-crusted snapper Siciliano ($25.99) with jumbo Gulf shrimp and tomatoes in a garlic shrimp sauce, and the filet ($34.99) with Italian roasted potatoes and asparagus and a rich Barolo demi-glaze.

"All of our sauces are homemade, we do all of the breading ourselves and nearly everything is made in house, including the desserts - except the gelato," Lacko says. "We make our own meatballs and roll our own dough for the pizza. And people are really liking it. Our portions are generous, so people like to share appetizers like meatballs and pizza."

Although the menu is basically set unless it is changed corporately, Lacko says she is encouraging her kitchen staff to be creative when it comes to menu additions and specials.

"One thing we are trying to do is to use local ingredients as the seasons change," she says. "We want to do things with Jersey tomatoes and corn and clams, and as summer hits, offer local species indigenous to Jersey waters."

Grotto's staff is polite, friendly and amiable, something Lacko is quite proud of .

"We wanted to hire more young, inexperienced servers without pretentiousness," Lacko says. "We can teach them how to be great servers, but we wanted servers who are not afraid to talk to the table and they are fun and full of energy. And it's working because we have people coming back time after time and they are asking for servers. We want to create that regular client base, and servers are a big part of that. I tell them all of the time that if you bought a Cadillac at a Plymouth price, you would probably go back to that dealership. So this is where we want people to feel good and comfortable."

Grotto's immediate success proves that casino diners are looking for affordable Italian dining options in Atlantic City.

"You don't find restaurants like ours in Atlantic City casinos," Lacko says. "With the building of Revel and other Italian restaurants in the casinos, you hear, 'Oh my gosh, I had to drop $200 on dinner.' That's not the case here. We make it affordable to go out and people not only get value, but they feel valued, as well."

At the bar

Grotto offers a beautiful perched bar overlooking the casino floor complete with plasma TVs for sports as well as hightop tables for a little privacy. The happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays is certainly worth checking out with $4 beers - including Flying Fish and Peroni on draft - $5 bellinis and 'tinis including the Chambord bellini and appletini, and $5 well drinks and wine. Also, try some signature drinks anytime, including the caramel apple ($8.95), which is like a dessert in a glass, and the Italian Margherita ($7.95) with tequila and amaretto. There's also $6 lite bites, including stuffed mushrooms, eggplant parm, calamari, mini meatballs and more. And an impressive wine list offers more than 200 wines focusing on Italian imports.

Must-try light bites

While the dinner menu definitely offers more dining choices for diners at Grotto, both menus are quite generous in their offerings for quick bites. The pizza is definitely worth trying. Fresh ingredients are the key to Grotto's thin-crust pies. Try the sausage and peppers pizza ($14.99) with Italian sausage and roasted peppers. For other apps, the meatballs ($8.99) are homemade and pan fried to perfection; the clams casino ($12.99) impress with bacon, peppers and a fresh parmesan cheese sauce; and the chicken cannelloni ($9.99) are stuffed with spinach and served with an Alfredo and tomato sauce duo.

Must-try entrees

There are nearly a dozen pasta dishes on the dinner menu, and a few really stand out: the lasagna ($17.99) isn't the heartiest lasagna you will ever find, and that's a good thing with its thin-baked layers of meat, pasta, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses. And the ravioli ($16.99) tossed with Roma tomatoes in a zesty vodka sauce will satisfy. For meat dishes, the classic chicken parmesan ($19.99) is crispy and flavorful thanks to Grotto's semi-sweet tomato sauce; and the veal Kickerillo ($25.99) offers parmesan-crusted scalloppine with mushrooms and a touch of lemon served over fettuccine Alfredo.

Grotto Ristorante

WHERE: Golden Nugget, Atlantic City

WHEN: Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays to Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays. Bar open until 2 a.m. Thursdays to Saturdays.

HOW MUCH: Lunch: soups and salads range in price from $6.99 to $15.99; appetizers $8.99 to $14.99; sandwiches $11.99 to $13.99; pasta $14.99 to $16.99; pizza $13.99 to $15.99; entrees $15.99 to $17.99. Dinner: soups and salads $6.99 to $17.99; appetizers $8.99 to $14.99; pizza $13.99 to $15.99; pasta $16.99 to $26.99; entrees $18.99 to $34.99. Desserts: $5.99 to $7.99

SERVICES: Major credit cards accepted. Liquor license. Disabled access via ramp from casino floor. Eat in. Takeout. Private parties. Kids menu. Catering. No smoking.

MORE INFO: Call 609-441-8475 or go to

BETWEEN YOU AND ME: When you eat at Grotto, the Golden Nugget doesn't expect you to pay for parking. Ask your server to validate your self-parking ticket.

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