At Luke Palladino, the new restaurant at Harrah’s Resort, Atlantic City, the phrase “In bocca al lupo” is tattooed across the white coffered ceiling of the main dining room in thick black script. The literal translation is, “Into the mouth of the wolf,” but colloquially it is a way of wishing someone good luck the way theater people bid each other, “Break a leg!”
Some might argue that Palladino, 42, has indeed plunged into the mouth of the wolf by returning to the casino setting he left in 2007 when he closed his two restaurants at the Borgata, Ombra and Specchio. After a spell as a globe-trotting consultant, the chef last year opened an intimate, very accomplished restaurant in Northfield, just a few miles from Atlantic City. Also called Luke Palladino, it made NJM’s Top 25 in August.
Palladino is frank about his reason for opening a 200-seat showplace at Harrah’s. “I can’t live on a 30-seat BYO,” he says. “I’ve got three kids, one in college.” There is also the allure of rolling the dice on a glamorous, high-profile project—or, as he succinctly puts it, “Why not?”
As Palladino relates, it was Don Marrandino, president of East Coast operations for Harrah’s, who planted the idea. Wanting a reservation at Northfield, “Don called or had his assistant call [the restaurant] four or five times,” Palladino says with a chuckle. “He couldn’t get in.” Eventually, Marrandino landed a table through a last-minute cancellation and became a quasi-regular. In the fall, he sat down with Palladino and invited him to open at Harrah’s. “They wanted to step up their food-and-beverage program,” says Palladino, “and not with a name-brand chef who wouldn’t ever be there.”
So far the wolf seems to be smiling on the venture. On my visits, even approaching 11 pm, each of the charcoal Lucite chairs was filled. Situated on the mezzanine above the clanging casino—glass doors block out the noise—the multi-room space sparkled with conversation, voices as bubbly as the bottle of Arcese, a strikingly gold three-grape blend from a 226-year-old Piemontese vineyard, I ordered from Palladino’s thick wine list.
Now six months old, Luke Palladino is clearly the ace in Harrah’s dining deck. And it is clearly the big brother of the 30-seat BYO. Fans of the Northfield restaurant will recognize many things—the irresistible breadstick wands slathered in white truffle butter and wrapped in prosciutto; the dense zeppoli served with Moscato zabaglione; the framed black-and-white photos of Italy; and the rustic wooden table laden with cheeses and cured meats.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” might be the mantra. On the contrary, just scale it up to serve 150 to 450 people a night. That’s fine with me, as long as the results include dishes as satisfying as the summer’s featherweight fried squash blossoms filled with creamy ricotta accented by sweet local corn and salty anchovy. They disappeared in seconds flat, a trail of tempura crumbs the only evidence they ever existed.
Pasta is the restaurant’s forte, and several are offered. Whether you choose delicate ravioli filled with melted burrata cheese in sauce made from Sun Gold tomatoes (a small, fire-orange variety known for their intense sweetness), pleasantly chewy chittara tossed in extra-virgin olive oil and showered with shaved bottarga (cured fish roe) or fat rigatoni (made in house) in an epic, milk-blushed, five-meat Bolognese (mainly beef chuck, pork shoulder and veal breast with some prosciutto and pancetta).
While you won’t be disappointed by the pasta, you might be less than satisfied by certain other dishes. Veal saltimbocca—prosciutto and sage slipped like love letters between thin-pounded cutlets—was good but expensive at $30. Some of the colorful local heirloom tomatoes in the burrata caprese were so under-ripe they crunched. I didn’t like the beef tartare at all, mostly because the ground beef, shaped into slightly flattened spheres and seared on one side, brought to mind undercooked meatballs.
Literally and figuratively, the biggest letdown was the 36-ounce bistecca alla Fiorentina porterhouse for two. I’ve had bistecca alla Fiorentina before in its natural habitat of Florence, where the beef traditionally comes from the revered Chianina cattle that graze along the Tuscan meadows. It was juicy and had a deep, all-encompassing flavor that seemed to go on for days. Even at the height of the euro’s power, it didn’t cost $110, which is the price in Atlantic City. Palladino’s version of bistecca uses grain-fed, at-least-30-day wet-aged Colorado beef. We ordered it medium-rare, and it arrived closer to medium-well, not to mention sliced off the bone before it had properly rested, evidenced by the dry meat and its released juices pooling on the platter. (On the other hand, the steak’s accompanying fingerling potatoes—boiled, smashed, fried crisp and showered with garlic and parsley—were probably the best spuds I’ve had in my life; the asparagus gratin was fittingly creamy; and the cabernet mustard was delightfully tangy.)
The staff can behave a little strangely as well. After taking my name (a pseudonym), the hostess left my group standing uncertainly by the restaurant’s entrance, wondering why we weren’t being seated. (Her co-hostess eventually returned and showed us in.) An overeager server wiped down our table with the hard-boiled speed of a diner waitress, sending cleaning-product fumes up our nose and crumbs flying everywhere. Another opened our bottle of wine and proceeded to fill my glass more than halfway without ever pouring a sample—or any at all for the three other people at my table. He then removed the bottle to some distant ice bucket, and we had to flag down our principal server (they work in teams of two) to bring him, and the wine, back.
Fortunately, the other staff members I encountered were warm and capable enough to make the above instances seem funny rather than irritating. All things considered, the only reason I would choose Northfield over Harrah’s is because it feels more intimate, more special (perhaps because of its hidden location in the elbow of a dimly lit strip mall). Harrah’s doesn’t give you the feeling of finding a buried treasure, but at least the air conditioning always works and tables are promptly ready at reservation time, two recurring problems I’ve experienced in Northfield.
Harrah’s also has a mammoth short rib you can’t get in Northfield. The beef’s glorious braised richness is smartly offset by a mahogany-colored, sweet-and-sour glaze of citrus and saba (reduced unfermented grape juice). The accompanying manicotti, filled with smooth Parmigiano-enriched potato purée, was so good it almost upstaged the beef.
Other hits included the seared escolar (the fish del giorno) over herbaceous potato purée rippled with salsa verde. Supple octopus is prepared exactly the way Palladino used to when he was cooking in Venice: poached in water, vinegar, bay leaf and a few wine corks (traditionally believed to help in tenderizing). As served in Atlantic City in Venetian style, the octopus is paired with creamy white beans, celery, red onions and a fresh lemon vinaigrette. And nobody complained about their desserts, whether it was crunchy cannoli, whose sweet ricotta filling was dotted with pistachios and candied citrus; boozy baba al rum; bittersweet Valrhona tart; or buttery peach-and-blueberry crostada.
All were fine ways to end a meal, but I’ll take the tray of biscotti. It features, among other cookies, my favorite—soft amaretti that are lighter and chewier than any I’ve had. These almond-scented cousins of French macaroons are traditional to the Saronno district of Lombardy, where legend says a young couple baked them for a visiting bishop. The vicar was so smitten with the sweets, he blessed the pair with a long and happy union, and the secret recipe was handed down generation to generation. Well, Palladino has managed to improve upon the classic—the amaretti expire in the mouth like airy, toasted angels.
While I savored the last cookie, I couldn’t help but wonder if Palladino can keep up the (mostly) high level of cooking here simultaneously with Northfield. The chef says he’s committed equally to both—spoken like a good father wanting to do right by all his children, biological and gustatory.