ATLANTIC CITY - What were we thinking? When we heard that Patsy's was Frank Sinatra's favorite restaurant in New York City we figured it for a red gravy-type establishment serving family-style food in big bowls passed around for the whole gang to enjoy. Conviviality and loud conversations would bounce off the walls like thunder around the room, with everyone trying to talk a little louder than the family member next to them.
This ain't New York City.
Patsy's in Atlantic City turned out to be a double white tablecloth restaurant that my dining companion described as "classy" more than once during our meal.
The menu was heavy on signature dishes. These included veal chop Siciliano, seafood fra diavolo and steak pizzaiola.
The decor was uncluttered and simple with artwork of Italian villas and rolling green hills surrounded by mirrored squares. The designer used wooden counterpoints to the light-colored walls with metalwork chandeliers encircled by rings of polished dark wood. Music, mostly Frank of course, was turned so low we just might have been listening to Michael Buble.
Best of all, the menu didn't disappoint when it came to plenty of red-gravy offerings. Frank was right again!
Golden-colored olive oil poured from a little ceramic pitcher onto a bread and butter plate was just right for dipping with plain and seeded Italian loaves. An order of clams casino ($15) was among the best we have sampled. Littleneck clams were stuffed with sweet diced pimento, onion and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese then topped with bacon and broiled. Resting on a bed of greens, the clams were served simply with a lemon wedge that they didn't really need. Clams casino originated not in Naples but in Rhode Island and, like many items on Patsy's menu, they reflect Italian-American influences rather than a strictly regional Italian dish.
Many authentically Italian dishes steer clear of mixing seafood and cheese, believing the delicate seafood becomes overwhelmed by the strength of the cheese. This is hardly a knock on Italian-American cuisine, which has consistently produced some of the best dishes around.
The hot grilled seafood appetizer ($22) was simplicity at its best. A grilled lobster tail, some large shrimp and the tubular parts of the calamari body were bathed in olive oil then lightly grilled to impart some smokey nuances to the seafood. Served on a bed of dressed baby rucola with lemon oil, the dish was finished with salty garnishes of capers and assorted olives like Gaeta and Bella di Cerignola. Manicotti ($22) consisted of rolled sheets of pasta stuffed with the same mozzarella, ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano mixture found in ravioli. Sauced with a tomato basil sauce and baked in the oven, two manicotti was more than a meal for the average diner. We took one home for later. Our last choice was our favorite dish, the misunderstood honeycomb tripe. Stewed alla Napoletana ($26), these thin strips of tripe were braised in a sauce of onions, prosciutto, green peas and tomatoes just long enough to tenderize them and meld the assorted ingredients into one complete dish. Fear not, those who shy away from tripe. The tripe at Patsy's was like eating a textured bowl of pasta and sauce, nothing more, nothing less. Anybody can cook with expensive ingredients. It takes a good cook to turn organ meats into such a special treat.
From a list of side dishes, we chose a plate of broccoli di rabe affogati ($10) for sharing. Typically blanched to remove some of the strong flavor, this version offered more of the bitter taste that native Italians admire in lettuce greens and in pre- or post-dinner liquors. Plenty of garlic and olive oil seasoned the greens.
For dessert we sampled a home-styled bowl of Tiramisu ($8), the "little pick me up" laced with espresso and rich mascarpone cream. A plate of assorted Italian cookies ($7) like pignoli and amaretti that were chewy inside and crisp on the outside paired perfectly with good tasting cappuccino and espresso.
Service was crisp, friendly and offered plenty of attention to detail.
We enjoyed an early evening dinner in a quiet room, although several other parties began lining up behind us while we waited at the hostess station for our table.
The Scognamillo family has been operating Patsy's in the New York theater district since 1944. Over the years the restaurant has attracted many celebrities to its tables, pictures of whom hang on the walls of both restaurants in tribute to the food. Patsy's in Atlantic City will no doubt add many photos of its own local devotees in the years to come.
Atlantic City Hilton
and the Boardwalk,
Hours: Dinners from 6 p.m. Friday to Tuesday. Closed Wednesday and Thursday.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: Most major
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: appetizers $13 to $22, entrees $20 to $48
Our bill for two: $140 plus tip