Stone stairs twist down like a corkscrew. Magnums of wine stand in wall niches around the staircase as shadows from low lights flicker. The scene might be ominous if not for the conviviality that grows louder as you descend to the dining level of Fornelletto, a stylishly rustic wine grotto and the Borgata’s newest theme restaurant.
In July, Stephen Kalt, executive chef of Corsa Cucina at Steve Wynn’s eponymous Vegas resort, departed for the Borgata, where the old Ombra space awaited rebirth as Fornelletto. “I saw Borgata as the Wynn of Atlantic City,” Kalt says. “There were already very renowned, very capable chefs under this roof.”
Ombra’s series of dimly lit dining rooms linked by rock-walled passageways and alcoves is retained, but Kalt has made the menu his own, emphasizing small plates and exotic ingredients (sea urchin, sea asparagus) and making the vibe more casual.
“I don’t believe fine dining is over completely,” he says, “but I like people to be enjoying themselves and having fun.”
Though prices at Fornelletto are anything but casual, Kalt’s loosely organized menu of more than 50 items encourages grazing and sharing. If the 220 seats, including a handsome marble bar and high-top community tables, are anywhere near full, large quantities of food must be produced. Combined with the big menu, the result is, unfortunately, a bumpy ride.
Over my three meals here, antipasti proved least consistent. I enjoyed the summery squash blossoms, whose tempura batter was lightened with Prosecco instead of the usual seltzer, each flower bursting with minted goat cheese and avocado. But there also were passively ordinary roasted baby beets in aged balsamic vinegar, and actively offensive (doughy, undercooked) salt-cod fritters in a drab parsley sauce; sea urchin crostini were so fishy I could barely stomach a second bite.
Wine, from a long, Italian-focused list, helps smooth the rough edges. Eating at the bar with a companion, I mined the delightful 50-under-$50 section, full of intriguing small producers and lesser-known grapes. The bartender, setting a plate of pasta before me, knocked over my glass of wine. (The attention was an improvement, I guess, since she showed little interest in me before I ordered the $44 roasted lobster fettuccine.) Apologies came via complimentary glasses of Moscato d’Asti with dessert—a fair trade for a damp shirt, though a manager should have come over to address the situation, considering that several sharply dressed management types were standing nearby, fawning over VIPs and audibly reprimanding an employee. (Service during my third visit, however, was flawless.)
At a station adjoining the wine bar, white-coated chefs sliced imported buffalo mozzarella and burrata (a mozzarella with a creamy, ricotta-like core) to be paired with various cicchetti (small plates) in earthenware bowls. New Jersey Health Department regulations require cheeses to be stored and served cold, essentially blunting their flavor. “I wish I could serve the mozzarella at room temperatures,” Kalt pines. Refrigerated, the mozzarella lacked its signature tang, but the burrata retained its smooth mouthfeel. If you order from the mozzarella bar, let the cheese warm up a few minutes before you dig in.
Whether by serendipity, carelessness, or a maverick disregard for the law, the other cheeses I sampled were warmer, and their flavors therefore blossomed. Fornelletto stocks an impressive, mostly Italian array; diners can order each cheese solo or create plates of three, five, or seven. Do try the nutty, nuanced Pecorino Grand Cru and the grassy, creamy Robiola di Roccaverano, crafted from a blend of cow, sheep, and goat milks.
Salumi is another highlight. Kalt serves some meats so transcendent (smoked speck, a ham, redolent of juniper; clove-tinged sopressata; guianciale that melts on the tongue) you scarcely believe they were crafted in Iowa, not Italy, by celebrated salumeria La Quercia. An entire section is dedicated to soft-crust Naples-style pizzas. Kalt makes his with dough fermented 48 hours for softness and a tinge of sourdough flavor. There are also some mozzarella-blanketed parmigianas “because people in the area grew up with that kind of Italian-American cooking,” Kalt says.
As in Italy, every piece of pasta was cooked al dente. (Unfortunately, gnocchi, in a gentle Gorgonzola dolce sauce with the surprising, delicious addition of sliced red grapes, had a gummy texture.) Tagliarini were terrific tossed with briny sea asparagus (a kind of seaweed) that sliced through the richness of sea urchin butter, lump crabmeat, reduced crab stock, and roasted plum tomatoes. Spaghetti—a sidecar to the whole orata (sea bream), perfectly baked in a salt crust and deftly filleted tableside—nearly stole the spotlight with its peppery arugula-anchovy pesto.
I adored the roasted lobster fettuccine (sadly, no longer on the menu). The recipe “is informed as much by my French training as my Italian,” Kalt says. The process involves poaching the claws and tails in court-bouillion; shelling them and reserving the meat; roasting the bodies and deglazing them with brandy and port; enriching a lobster stock with San Marzano tomatoes; and finally tossing the chopped meat with the handmade noodles and sauce. The value of each painstaking step was evident in every bite.
Veal piccata—tender cutlets in a bold, lemony, caper-studded white-wine sauce topped with a single crispy-fried sweetbread—was much more exciting than it may sound. Even better was fried rabbit. Separated into pieces like chicken, the rabbit sections are brined; marinated in buttermilk, bay leaf, and herbs; tossed in super-fine flour, and fried till golden and crackly. Served over silky potato purée ringed with rabbit jus, the dish was irresistible, its drizzle of Tuscan thousand-flower honey and Dijon mustard providing a smart, hot-and-sweet accent.
The thousand-flower honey appeared again during dessert, lending its floral sweetness to a softball-sized brioche, split like a hamburger bun and filled with a globe of vanilla gelato. “The way Americans would ‘get’ an ice cream cone,” explains Kalt, “is the way Sicilians ‘get’ this ice cream sandwich.” Fornelletto’s other fine finales included refreshing ruby red grapefruit sorbetto, cinnamon-sugar doughnuts made from brioche dough; and affogato—Illy espresso poured over chocolate-caramel ice cream and a triple chocolate biscotto for dipping. The dry cinammon apple crostata didn’t excite.
As I received the check, a bartender pointed out the three consecutive sevens in the total. “Lucky,” she said. “You’d better go upstairs and play some slots.” Considering that my meal (and the two that followed) averaged $100 per person with tax, tip, and a bottle of under-$50 wine, I needed a turn of fortune.
Luck is key at Fornelletto; Kalt’s menu can give you a culinary jackpot on par with any of the Borgata’s other restaurants. Or, like a jinxed slot, it can eat your money and send you back up those corkscrew stairs, jilted and unfulfilled.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Italian