I had the utter, sincere, deep and profound pleasure of celebrating my birthday at Chef Vola’s in Atlantic City last weekend. Volas has a somewhat mysterious aura about it, ranging from the fact that it’s in the basement of a house on a side street in Atlantic City to the absolute necessity of reservations (more on that) to the lack of significant public information. They don’t publish their address or telephone number. It’s the foodie equivalent of driving in Boston: you better know where you’re going and how to get there.
Chef Volas has been owned and managed by the Esposito family for more than 25 years; Michael Jr. works the kitchen while Louis runs the front of the house. There is no reservation about reservations – they’ll book three to four months ahead for weekends, and weeks ahead for a weeknight in the dead of winter, when the wind really is whipping on down the boardwalk. Once you get through (which is only slightly more difficult than finding someone helpful at, say, your cable company), expect to provide references: Have you eaten there before? Where did you sit? What did you have? Don’t be put off by the gravitas of the background check, even if it does have the feel of an FBI field operation. There has to be some secrecy to the most well-known “secret restaurant” in the state.
When you’re seated, you’re presented with de rigeur menus but they’re a Tourist Turing Test. Put them to the side and listen, attentively to your waiter or waitress running through the specials. Pictured is the veal parmigiana special, comprising a double veal chop that has been butterflied, pounded thin and brought you to happily coated in sauce and mozzarella cheese. Our own Bear is shown for comparative purposes. Bar Mitzvah favor-style Chef Vola’s bag filled with to-go containers are clutched by everyone leaving the dining room for a good reason. My personal favorite is the chicken arribiata, a trio of chicken breasts prepared with sauce rich in potatoes, pepperoni and prosciutto, either spicy or regular (go for spicy). You’re allowed to refer to the menu for the house salad, a collection of greens with salami and olives that feeds 1.4 average adults per portion.
My advice: pace yourself, don’t over-rotate on the bread, and leave room for dessert. The cheese pies (cheesecake with a decidedly Esposito family touch) and rice pudding are homemade and worth the calories. You can walk on the boardwalk the next day to repent for the sins of commission, but do not commit a sin of omission by skipping dessert. Dinner is only over when you’re presented with a wooden box containing your check, to be filled with some scarole of your own. Vola’s does not take credit cards.
Some people claim that Vola’s is more attraction than authentic. If you want gourmet food with elegant presentation, exotic flavors that tease your taste buds, and sculpted artistic presentations that involve elements of high school geometry and topographic studies, you’ll be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – I like those restaurants and appreciate scallops on an inclined plane with an ellipsoid of pea foam, when I want artistic and not authentic. Volas is authentic. It’s home cooking on a slightly larger scale, both in terms of portion size and seating area, but most definitely with that “in someone’s home” feel. This is what makes Vola’s spectacular – they aren’t trying to force a hamish feeling; it’s just the way the Espositos greet and treat their diners. Whether you’re eating on the upstairs deck, sitting in the single seat vestibule for your table, or squeezing between tables to get to the bathroom (requiring telecommunications-quality signaling protocols for collision avoidance with the non-stop armfuls of plates coming out of the kitchen), you’re part of the family for the evening.