“We have customers who go back 40 years,” says Louise Esposito, possibly trying to astonish me, which she does not. What she didn’t know is that I’m one of them.
Tucked away in an attic closet with other mementos of my past is a torn, stiff, curled-up, plastic-covered address book from the early ’70s. That was a time when I lived in Philadelphia and regularly dined in Atlantic City, mostly to take young women I hoped to impress to a restaurant I assured them was accessible to only a select few, those who possessed its unlisted telephone number.
The restaurant was Chef Vola’s, owned since 1982 by Louise, now 62, and her husband, Michael, 67, but back in my dating days operated by a mysterious Chef Vola, whom I thought of as a reclusive sort who never came out of his kitchen. Only recently, when I returned to Chef Vola’s after having had only one meal there in the past three decades, did I learn that he was in fact a she. This tiny basement spot was first opened in 1921 by an Italian immigrant named Pina Vola, passed on by her to a cook named Ed Gold and ultimately sold to the Esposito family.
The Espositos know little else about either Vola or Gold, although both were living in apartments above the restaurant when they purchased it in 1982. “She was very old and very lovely and very quiet, and she only came downstairs a couple times to see what we were doing,” Louise says. “When Gold owned it, he wanted it to be low profile and low key, [and] do just enough business to make a living.”
Earlier this year, Chef Vola’s received recognition from the James Beard Foundation as one of America’s Classics, defined first and foremost as a restaurant with timeless appeal. No restaurant I know better fills that description.
If you wish to sample Pina Vola’s original sauces and dishes, at least two remain on the menu unchanged: marinara sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes—Louise says the rest of the recipe is secret—and Sicilian chicken cacciatore, on or off the bone. Other holdovers from the early days include broiled prime sirloin steak, rack of baby lamb, veal cutlet parmigiana, spinach sautéed in garlic and olive oil, real home-style tossed salad and pasta with white clam sauce. Louise doesn’t know whether to credit Gold or Vola for those.
Gold’s carrots with honey, cinnamon and butter are fondly remembered by Louis Esposito, 42, one of Louise and Michael’s two sons, but the dish has disappeared. When I remind Louise how much her son loved Gold’s carrots, she is startled. “I wonder why we took them off the menu?” she asks herself aloud. “And I wonder why Louis never asked me to make them for him at home?” (Italian mothers worry about such things.)
Should you want a reservation at Chef Vola’s these days, you still need the unlisted number, although it’s not nearly so exclusive anymore—not the way the Internet operates. “I’m still paying for it to be unlisted,” Louise says, “but now it’s all over the place. I didn’t want to change it because I don’t like to change what’s working.” In a small concession to the times, the restaurant has a website, though it does not give the phone number or address.
Chef Vola’s is located in midcity, on a tiny street about a block from the ocean, up against a lot where the tab for parking is just 5 bucks except on holidays or when a notable star is appearing at one of the nearby casinos. (Louise recalls the price going up to $12 for Frank Sinatra.) The Tropicana is 2½ blocks away, Caesar’s about six.
For almost all of the 20th century, Atlantic City was a glittery, middle-class beach resort that lured families like mine from all over the East Coast. Today, little remains of what was the most alluring destination of my childhood. The Ritz is now condos. The Claridge hotel exists, in mutated form. Louis, who was not yet a teenager in his early, carrot-eating days, tells me that Playland Arcade, where he spent every cent his parents paid him to wash dishes, is still in business. You’ll find a few rolling wicker chairs still traversing the Boardwalk. And, thank goodness, Fralinger’s still sells genuine saltwater taffy, perhaps the number-one sweet of my childhood, with its infinite varieties, its pinwheel of possibilities, except of course for the dreadful molasses mint, the flavor I always tried to foist off on my sister.
To me, nothing comes close to Chef Vola’s in recalling the joyfulness that was the hallmark of this city back when I was young.
The Espositos, now married 45 years, were happily raising their sons at 21st and Shunk in the historic Girard Estate section of South Philadelphia. Michael owned a bar and restaurant. All was well. Then the Espositos realized that Louis and his older brother, Michael Jr., now 44, preferred the Shore.
The family had a summer house in Brigantine, only a few miles from Atlantic City, and, Louise says, “I remember them flying kites on the beach, how happy they were.” In 1976 they sold the summer place, bought something larger not far away, and moved permanently to Brigantine. Two years later the first casinos opened. Michael took a late-shift job as a chef at the Tropicana’s Italian restaurant, Il Verdi. Louise worked the breakfast-and-lunch shift supervising a restaurant staff at Harrah’s. “Both places were very nice to us, but they wouldn’t let him go to a day shift,” she recalls. “They said he was too valuable cooking for customers at night. And we had different days off.”
She prayed a solemn novena to St. Jude for nine weeks, once a week, at a church in Absecon, asking that something might happen to bring their family closer together. “We were raised the old-fashioned Italian way,” she says. “Those are the values we believe in.” About the time the prayers ended, she and Michael happened to get the same day off, a rarity, and went for dinner at Chef Vola’s, then owned by Gold.
Michael, given a tour of the kitchen, said to Gold, “If you ever decide to sell the place, let me know.” He replied, “It’s for sale.” Louise says, “I figured [Michael] was just looking, but he came out of the kitchen, gave me a hug, and said, ‘We just shook hands on the deal.’”
They had a new business. They had two cars that weren’t paid off. They had a mortgage on the house. They had two boys in private schools. “It was frightening,” Louise says. “It was like walking the plank. I was scared. I was starting to get the shakes.”
There was, in those days, the hope that Atlantic City would become Las Vegas. It was a commonplace dream, but it never occurred, never came close to happening. “I don’t know why, but it’s nothing like Vegas,” Louise admits. While she remains an optimist who believes the city will eventually flourish again as a gambling resort, that path to prosperity didn’t figure into the family’s plans. They simply had a restaurant to run.
They deliberately took over from Gold as quickly as possible, eager to benefit from the remaining summer months of 1982. They survived the winter with its slow nights. It wasn’t until the following summer that the Espositos realized their restaurant would do well. They expanded the menu, started reserving carefully in order to maximize seatings, became more organized. Word of the food spread. “And about then, in 1983, newspapers started finding us,” Louise added. “That was it.”
Louis told me how puzzled he was, just after his parents took over the tiny restaurant in the basement of an undersized, three-story house, to find Pina Vola living on the second floor, Ed Gold on the third. But Chef Vola’s is about constancy, and tenants always lived up there. They still do. Now the residents include Michael’s Aunt Carmella in the apartment where Gold once lived.
It’s not easy finding much about Chef Vola’s that has changed. The sidewalk is newly paved because Louise and Michael worried about female guests in high heels tripping over the uneven surface. A curling green awning starts on the second floor and ends at the undersized basement entrance, protecting customers in the event of rain. I tell Louise it is just as I remembered it, and she tells me it is only two years old. It looks so right I had assumed it was always part of the place.
When I mention to Louis that the interior seems more cramped, he assures me that it is because customers are getting taller, not that the space is getting smaller. The staff is growing, too—four of the young waiters are more than 6-feet tall.
The interior is not what anyone would call elegant: stucco walls, dark-brown wood trim, sound-deadening overhead tiles, and some wonderful punched-tin, tomato-can chandeliers that date back to the first days of the restaurant. They look like folk art, or at least like some talented kid’s arts-and-crafts project from summer camp. In reality, they’re just number 10 tomato cans, or whatever number 10 cans were called 90 years ago. Louise was thinking of replacing them with Tiffany chandeliers but changed her mind when regulars reminded her that tomato cans sway harmlessly when tall customers bang their heads against them, whereas solid Tiffany glass hurts. (The former basketball player Charles Barkley, who stands about 6 feet 6 inches, has been in.)
The kitchen is perilous, sweltering and stunted. When I request permission to stand there and watch the cooks at work, Louise says, “The kitchen is like a symphony. You have to know how to bop and weave in there. We teach our cooks how to bop and weave. We don’t want anybody in the kitchen who can’t.” The bathroom, formerly located next to the dishwashing station, is now closer to the dining room. No longer do guests have to worry about being accidentally sprayed by water from a hose.
The new bathroom was the talk of the restaurant the night I stopped in. One woman told me that she had never used the bathroom in all the years she’d been coming to Chef Vola’s, but was reconsidering now that it had been relocated to a more convenient spot. Louise, miffed that her old bathroom had developed such a poor reputation, spoke up in defense of it. “I had Natalie Cole in the restaurant wearing suede shoes,” she recalls. “There was water spraying around when she used the old bathroom, and she said it never bothered her.”
The dining room, which used to seat about 50, now holds 65 to 70, thanks to a tiny waiting area with 12 to 14 seats carved out of what was an overly large foyer packed with family photos. That new area is now grandiosely called the Frank Sinatra Room. Several photos of Sinatra hang on the walls of the main dining room, including one that he signed. “I never met him,” says Louise, “but Pina and Ed told us he used to come in. He was getting a little old when we arrived, but he’d still send someone to bring him my banana cream pie.”
That pie is now a signature dish of the restaurant. Should you try it, your respect for Sinatra is likely to grow. (My favorite dessert happens to be Louise’s nearly-as-famous limoncello cream pie, all silken coolness, made with a lemon-drop cookie crust and limoncello liqueur imported from Southern Italy.) The Sopranos cast has eaten at Chef Vola’s, and their photo is on the wall. Two photos of Pope John Paul II are up there, too, gifts from customers. He never stopped by.
The only fundamental change in the restaurant since Louise and Michael took over is the menu, which has gone from extreme minimalism to unmatched extravagance, especially for a restaurant of its modest size. The Espositos often travel to Southern Italy, where they find dishes they love and adapt them to their tastes. “Take something you like and make it a little bit different,” Louise explains. A decidedly South Philly influence is the shaker jar of grated Pecorino-Romano on each table. There’s even fish, seven varieties a night. Fish was never offered at Chef Vola’s until Louise and Michael came along.
“One day, not long after we bought the place,” Louise says, “I heard a banging on the door. I opened it and somebody was screaming, ‘Thirty-foot waves are coming. You have to evacuate.’ I told all the people in the restaurant, ‘A storm is coming. They’re going to close the Expressway. They’re going to close the Black Horse Pike and the White Horse Pike. Get out.’ My husband ran out of the kitchen; he was saying that we had to pack our bags, get the kids, go. Everybody kept eating. Nobody left.”
Chef Vola’s is a testament to loyalty, to say nothing of sweets; there are 21 desserts every night. I ate my dinner in the Frank Sinatra Room, at a table next to Mitch and Joanne Leibovitz, formerly from Philly and now retired to La Jolla, California, which doesn’t stop them from visiting the restaurant as often as they can. Mitch regaled me with praise for the chicken scarpariello, an Italian-American classic made with cut-up chicken, onions, peppers, mushrooms and housemade veal sausage, one of a multitude of dishes at Chef Vola’s that people say are the best they ever had. “You know how there’s always something you order in a restaurant that’s not as good as you remember it when you come back?” asked Mitch. “The chicken scarpariello is always as good as I remember it. The first time I had it I took home the leftovers and had it the next night. That was the best consecutive meal I’ve ever had in my life.”
He added, “I never had a dish here I didn’t like and never brought a guest here who didn’t like every dish. Every dish you see here I’ve never seen better.”
Marty Heaney walked in with a group of friends plus an imperial (a 6-liter bottle) of collectible California Cabernet—Chef Vola’s is BYO. He revealed his secret for satisfying dining: “I pick a partner and we split two dishes. I like the pounded veal chop parmigiana, the Chilean sea bass and the lobster Francaise.” Another guest, Doug Fraser, owner of the Mays Landing Golf & Country Club, said, “Mario Batali can’t do pounded veal as good as the one I’m going to have tonight.”
There are Jersey diners with menus smaller than Chef Vola’s. Customers could very well eat here all their lives without duplicating a meal, although it seems to me as though most of them repeatedly order the dishes they love most. The menu lists nearly 50 items, but as Louise points out, “The menu is nothing compared to the nightly specials, at least 15 a night.” The explanation for so many options is that once a dish is deemed acceptable by the Esposito tasting panel—Michael, Louise, Louis and Michael Jr.—it almost never departs the premises, at least not permanently. And, says Louise, “We don’t want you to eat here and then say you can get the same thing down the street.”
The kitchen is supervised by Michael, while Louise looks after the dining room and the desserts. In fact, she created most of them, her pastry expertise evolving from the home cooking of three grandmothers: Michael’s grandmother from Naples and Louise’s grandmothers, one from Calabria and one from Bari.
“After awhile, I started doing it more my own way,” she says. Customers argue over which of her warm ricotta pies are best: I had the strawberry and the coconut pecan. While I was eating them, Leibovitz was telling me that I had made a mistake and should have had the apple, although the peach was nice, too.
Basically, portions are excessive, which means leftovers—a lot of them. Anything a restaurant in Southern Italy can do, the Espositos will do bigger. That chicken scarpariello, for instance, is beyond massive. Many variations of this dish exist, and to my knowledge, none is more lavish than Michael’s. I asked for a half order, since I was just sampling, and somehow my portion managed to overflow the plate. Says Michael, “Maybe 60 or 70 percent of the people take home food.” Louise edits him, sweetly, which I get the impression she does a lot. “Maybe 80 percent,” she says. “Think of the bags we go through.” Of the many commentaries and corrections invariably forthcoming from his wife, Michael says, “I’m the head of the family. She is the neck that turns it.”
Prices are not cheap, but they are more than reasonable, and the BYO practice makes the final check one of the least expensive at any upscale Italian restaurant I know. Here is Louise’s explanation of the prices: “Thank God we keep them nice.”
After nearly 30 years of adoring their customers and not overcharging them, the Espositos seem to have only one real problem in life: Finding tables for all the people who want to eat at Chef Vola’s. As Heaney puts it, “The only people with bad things to say about the restaurant are people who can’t get in.”
There are only two ways to get a reservation: Keep coming back, or become a personal friend of somebody who keeps coming back. I overhear Louise ask a caller, “Do you remember who recommended us to you?”
I ask her if she gives preference to first-time callers who know somebody whom she knows, and she is more than candid. She is explicit. “Of course. I always ask callers how they heard about us. If you’re a friend of a good customer, I want to give the table to you. I know you’re going to stop whatever you’re doing and call me if you can’t show up. If you’re doing well at the casino, you’re going to call and say, ‘Louise, I’m winning, I can’t make it.’ That’s fine. We always have a waiting list.”
On the Beach With a Tuna on Rye
Atlantic City was the best place on earth for me when I was a kid. (The only drawback was that my very thrifty parents never took a motel, and we always came and went from Philly on the same day.) We showed up in the morning, took a locker in one of those public changing areas that were perfectly respectable for middle-class families way back then, went to the beach, got horrifically burned, returned to shower and change, finally walked the Boardwalk.
My mother would always bring sandwiches for lunch on the beach—I told you we were thrifty—and it was always tuna. To this day, I can’t be sitting on sand without thinking of Atlantic City and wanting tuna, lettuce and mayo on rye. I can be on a beach in Southeast Asia being offered skewered langoustines grilled over an open fire, and I’m thinking, “Wish this was canned tuna.”
At night, on the Boardwalk, we’d eat sliced roast beef sandwiches, so juicy, at a place whose name I forget, and my pleas for a Taylor Pork Roll sandwich would be refused, us being Jewish and my father practically kosher. (Not until much later did I finally taste Taylor Pork Roll, and it was just awful.)
When I was a sportswriter for the evening Bulletin in Philly, Atlantic City and Chef Vola’s was a perfect dinner-date destination. No woman could resist such an exotic proposition—secret destination, down by the sea. When I did that, I was Philadelphia’s Porfirio Rubirosa. I don’t remember the food being greatly different from that at most Italian restaurants, but the venue and the sense of adventure was unparalleled.
And, after dinner, I would suggest a walk on the beach. It was the best.
When I went back there recently, I was alone, so I was able to concentrate on the food, not the woman with me. That was probably all for the best. The food has sure gotten better, but I certainly have not.
Alan Richman, winner of 14 James Beard Foundation writing awards, is the most decorated food writer in history. He is the author of Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater.Click here to leave a comment