ATLANTIC CITY - Surely, we were taking the elevator down into someone's private wine cellar. The vaulted brick ceilings confirmed our arrival as we stepped out into the well-appointed bar area.
This was no ordinary wine cellar, but Fornelletto, the newest restaurant at the Borgata. It's Chef Stephen Kalt's Italian cucina, a replacement for the well-regarded Ombre restaurant.
The occasion? To celebrate the beginning of Atlantic City Restaurant Week and to enjoy some modern Italian cooking at a reduced price.
Here's how Atlantic City Restaurant Week worked: 3-course dinners cost $33.10 plus tax and tip at 83 area restaurants in Atlantic City and other Atlantic City environs through March 6 (some restaurants have extended the promotion into a second week.)
Each participating restaurant was offering a special menu just for the occasion.
The prix-fixe meals include a choice of appetizer, entree and dessert. Chefs choose dishes that fit with their restaurant concept, but typically are not found on the normal menu. It gives the chefs a chance to sharpen their pencils and devise options that grab the customers' attention, yet still fit in with the food costs; restaurants are businesses, after all.
Fornelletto's menu was everything we had hoped for and more. Appetizer choices included a Mozzarella di Bufala salad made with heirloom tomatoes and arancini - fried risotto balls made with saffron, pine nuts, raisins and parmigiano reggiano cheese.
Entrees offered Cacio e Pepe, fettucine pasta with cream, butter and Pecorino Romano; Spaghetti alla Chitarra, made by rolling pasta dough over a wooden frame tied with piano wire; and Tuscan Fried Chicken served with a chestnut honey mustard. And what kind of Italian restaurant wouldn't offer an iconic white-chocolate tiramisu for dessert?
When we sat down at the table, a red-and-white package of grissini sticks was waiting. Admittedly, the thought "is that all there is?" crossed our minds. But as we sampled the crisp imported breadsticks, a paper-lined metal basket filled with rectangular pieces of focaccia bread and large hunks of Tuscan bread, the kind with the thick crust, arrived. A corked white pitcher held extra-virgin olive oil to apply to the breads on a whim.
We got into the mood when a bowl of onion-and-fennel soup was placed on our table, along with a 9th Street Italian Market chopped salad. The soup was fantastic, best described as a take on the famous French onion, with slices of caramelized onion and fennel, the licorice-flavored stalk, covered by a flavorful brown broth. A crispy crostini topped with melted Fontina cheese floated on top of the soup, and hidden in the broth were tiny meatballs. My dining companion asked for a taste then refused to return my bowl until it was empty. I sampled the corresponding salad instead.
The chopped salad was composed of Romaine, radicchio and baby arugula along with black olives, cucumber, tomatoes, sopressata and ceci, dressed and molded into a tower on the plate that leaned over just enough to remind us of that famous monument in Pisa. The salad was crisp, cold, colorful and perfectly coated in a grated-cheese dressing. Anyone who loves gnocchi knows you can only eat so many. These smooth pasta pillows looked like they were piped out of a pastry bag into boiling water then sauced with a hearty tomato, ground-veal and pork sauce. My dining companion claimed they were undercooked, but I thought they were light as air.
Our server grated cheese and offered ground black pepper to order. We learned two things from the Chicken Milanese, a Restaurant Week rendition of the pricier version made from a butterflied veal chop. The boneless chicken breast had been pounded thin, lightly breaded and pan fried with a heap of arugula, cherry tomatoes, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and balsamico. The chicken breasts were perfectly moist, proving that chicken breasts are best when cooked with a light hand and that the lower-cost chicken was every bit as good as the pricier veal. A different version of the veal chop on the regular menu sells for $45, more than the entire three courses cost during Restaurant Week.
We happily selected Bambolini, an Italian deep-fried doughnut rolled in vanilla sugar and served deconstructed with the "fillings" on the side. We dipped them into raspberry preserves, creme Anglaise and fudge sauce. We also sampled the housemade gelato of the day, chocolate. Who would have thought it would go so well with Bambolini?
While the physical layout of Fornelletto seemed exactly the same as the defunct Ombre, we thought the old antipasta area, with its glassed-off marble surfaces, was underutilized. It offered a selection of cheeses on display, but we missed the old slicer that was used to turn cured meats into paper-thin slices of the charcutier's art. And, on this evening, the remembered beehive of activity that was so much fun to watch was confined to a lone cook marrying half-used bottles of honey, one to the other. We also noted the choice of music wasn't necessarily Italian inspired. A back waiter walked past our table carrying a tune of her own, as if no one else were in the room.
A series of black-and-white photos spaced out on several walls featured some of the more common Italian hand gestures, at least the ones that can be used in polite company. Looking through the menus for Atlantic City Restaurant Week, we thought Fornelletto's was one of the most interesting. And the price made it a tremendous deal. Even restaurant critics can appreciate a great bargain.
Many expensive restaurants are going to lower-priced entrees for longer than a week at a time in order to survive. Wouldn't it be great to afford a fantastic meal on a regular basis without spending an arm and a leg? We miss Ombre, but the food at Fornelletto was every bit as good as what we remember eating there in times past.
(C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
Fornelletto Cucina & Wine Bar
Borgata Hotel Casino
One Borgata Way
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Closed Sunday and Monday
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: All major
Disabled access: Yes
Price: $33.10 for three courses, times two, during recent Restaurant Week