There's a lot of history at Angelo's Fairmount Tavern in Atlantic City, and owner Angelo Mancuso III remembers it all.
Standing in what's now his office above the Italian restaurant that's been his family business for about 78 years, he can point out where his father - also Angelo - and aunt used to sleep in his grandparents four-bedroom home above the main bar and entrance. In the large closet that holds the tablecloths, aprons and other linens, he points out the spot where he used to watch TV as a child every Sunday night. That was back when he and his four sisters had sleepovers with grandma while his dad helped his grandfather in the commercial kitchen below.
"My dad was always here, he spent his whole life in this restaurant," the third-generation Mancuso says. "Me and my four sisters, we're all in this restaurant too."
He remembers the names of the families who used to live in the houses the Mancuso's bought to expand the restaurant; the kids who used to play ball and the fathers who used to park their cars in the alley that's been enclosed to hold a second bar; and the restaurant workers who used to live in the apartments that are now a large banquet room upstairs and a dining room for parties of 10 or more downstairs. And he remembers being disgusted when he learned firsthand how sausage is made.
"As a kid, I used to hate making sausage. You know how it's really made - with the intestines, and you stuff the meat in with a machine?" he says, even as he smiles over the memory of his grandfather - who came to America alone from Delia, Sicily, at age 12, with only the vague notion he had an older sister in Reading, Pa., - teaching him how.
These days, he buys the sausage served at Angelo's Fairmount Tavern, but he'll still make it for family friends. And while his family's original sauces and stocks still are used in the kitchen, he prefers grilling when he's at home. But he leaves the cooking to Chef Gregory Montgomery, who his grandmother hired about 20 years ago as an intern from Atlantic Cape Community College's Academy of Culinary Arts.
Montgomery's own heritage is English and Polish, but even though he sometimes will offer stuffed cabbage on the specials menu, he knows people who come to Angelo's are looking for traditional Southern Italian cuisine such as the family's chicken Marsala and his own, very popular lobster ravioli.
That's fine by him. After 20 years, he can't help but embrace Italian cuisine, and he likes seafood, anyway.
"I'm a lobster lover. If I'm cooking at home, too, I'll do anything with seafood. I love fish, tilapia, sea bass when it's not expensive, clams, scallops - and scampi, my girls love my scampi," he says, although he'll also make meatloaf and spaghetti for his wife and three daughters. "A salesman came in here a few years ago and brought samples of lobster ravioli and I messed around with it. I guess it worked; on a Saturday night I do easily 40 or 50 orders of it."
And he does have bragging rights, even if the ravioli are pre-made, because his dish comes with a 6-ounce Brazilian lobster tail - expertly poached - and 3 ounces of jumbo lump crab meat, plus fresh spinach and tomatoes in the delicate cream sauce.
"If you're poaching it, you can do the finger test," he says, showing how the lobster meat should feel by pressing his index finger against the palm of his hand below his thumb. But really, that kind of expertise comes with years of experience. "If it's not completely done, it'll finish cooking in the sauce, when you simmer it low with the spinach, tomatoes and crab."
"If you don't want to poach it, just take it out of the tail, cut it in pieces, and saute it in good olive oil."
And even though he makes it almost every day at work, in his own home Montgomery reserves such extravagant fare for special occasions. The more affordable chicken Marsala is more likely to be found on his weeknight dinner table.
"It's one of the cheapest dishes you can make," he says. The trick is "when you're making the demi-glace, don't burn the bones. If you burn the demi glace, the sauce will taste burnt. You have to keep a close eye on it so it doesn't scorch. If you smell it (burning) it's already past."
And once you're cooking the chicken don't be alarmed when - not if - the pan's contents ignite when you're deglazing it. A little red wine will get all that charred goodness off the sides and draw it back into the chicken, where you want it.
"That's where all the flavor comes from," he says. "If you want to cheat, you can buy demi-glace mix (in powder form) from RC Fine Foods or Knorr makes a good one, and you just dump it into the pot, add water and whisk it until it's incorporated. Then you put it on the stove on high and stir it so it doesn't burn and you've got an easy demi glace."
The dish also can be easily adapted to taste, Add a little lemon-butter sauce, garlic and white wine instead of marsala sauce and you've got chicken picante, or use eggs in the batter and kick up the lemon zest and you have chicken Francaise. Or if you want a dinner everyone will be happy with, just come to Angelo's Fairmount Tavern and they'll make each person an Italian favorite with 78-years of history behind it.
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