For three decades, a modern Italian restaurant has stood strong and independent in Atlantic City, making a name for itself away from the hustle and bustle of the casinos.
Girasole was opened in 1992 by Naples native Gino Iovino. Coming from a career in fashion, Iovino traveled around Italy, tasting different cuisines in gastronomic capitals such as Milan and Florence. When he came to New Jersey, he opened Girasole to share his knowledge with the Shore.
“I’m a sea person, so I knew I had to be by the sea,” says Iovino of his location. At Girasole, one of New Jersey Monthly‘s best restaurants in Atlantic City, Iovino and his Italian chefs craft a “modern and refreshing” version of traditional Italian cuisine.
The staff is “one huge family,” Iovino says, including his nieces, nephews, sisters and more. This Spring, the restaurant is celebrating its 30th anniversary with new menus, dishes, happy-hour specials and more.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” Iovino says. “Thirty years later, strangely enough, we’re doing better than ever.”
After 30 years, do you still remember opening those doors for the first time?
Gino Iovino: Yes, I remember! I was excited but also so scared. Two other Italian restaurants had opened prior to me and both failed. It was a big risk, but I was excited to bring something new to the area.
Where did you learn to cook?
I didn’t really learn how to cook, but I did learn how to eat. I used to work in the fashion industry and was traveling around a lot in Italy, to places like Milan, Florence, Naples. I started learning about food in these beautiful cities and was tasting all these different cuisines. I fell in love and it took me away. I’m not that great in the kitchen, but I know how food is supposed to taste and how to choose proper and quality ingredients to make dishes right.
What has been your experience in Atlantic City?
The casinos have a different identity, and it’s about catering to the gamblers and guests. I really wanted to create something original and true outside of that. Our menu is a bit more modern. Even though it’s traditional cuisine, we make it new and refreshing.
Do you still visit Italy for inspiration?
Before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to travel to Italy three or four times a year. I’m originally from Naples and came here when I was 17. When I opened Girasole, I wanted to bring my knowledge of a healthier, natural cuisine.
Did you use your experiences in Italy to craft the Girasole menu?
We wanted to bring in good quality ingredients. We have some chefs from Italy who introduce a lot of new things to the area. It’s more of a Mediterranean type of cuisine, concentrating more on fresh seafood, meats and gourmet pizzas. We have a custom-built oven made by an Italian mason for our pizzas.
Are you doing anything special for your 30-year anniversary?
We are currently remodeling the inside and refreshing the place. We are going to introduce some new menus, including a bar menu, lounge menu, regular menu and a new happy hour. A couple new plates I’m excited about are zucchini blossoms and Spaghetti Nerano style, like they do on the Amalfi Coast. We also introduced a new pizza dough that took off like crazy in Naples. The base is nice and light and it almost melts in your mouth, so you can eat even more of it without feeling bloated.
What has been your favorite part of running a restaurant in Atlantic City for 30 years?
Throughout the years I have met the greatest people. The good people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made have been really exciting. It means more to me than the business.