ambience: Sunny, gracious, elegant
service: Skilled, responsive
wine list: About 70 percent Italian; most bottles $25–$65
dinner for two: $100
It’s easy to drive right past Girasole. Situated on the ground floor of a residential high-rise on a main drag in the lull between the Tropicana and the Hilton, the restaurant’s curtained glass walls and modest awning don’t do the Atlantic City thing, which is shout for attention. You wouldn’t guess Girasole offers valet parking, let alone a warm and lovely interior and some of the best Italian cooking in the state.
Once inside, reminders abound that girasole is Italian for sunflower. The ottomans in the bar are covered in a handsome Versace fabric of stylized gold sunflowers on a deep blue field. Those deep blues and sunny golds echo throughout the restaurant, with light filtering through off-white canvas strung from the ceiling in orderly ripples, creating a tent-like effect. As you sit, it’s hard to avoid craning your neck to pick out all the artful sunflower references, none kitschy.
In this tourist town it isn’t tourists who have kept Girasole alive since it opened fifteen years ago as an offshoot of the Philadelphia original. Owner Gino Iovino says that in winter, when snowbirds have flown, half his customers are local; when the flock returns, the clientele trends 80 percent local.
Iovino says that many of his regulars dine at Girasole three or four times a week. And why not? Italian cooking this good does not wear out its welcome. Girasole’s tomato sauce, for example, is a minor miracle of soothing tomato flavors, deepened with herbs, neither acidly harsh nor cloyingly sweet.
One of the best ways to experience the tomato sauce is on the braciola—a rustic and rousing main course in which delicious rolled braised beef, some sausage, and a meatball are compactly presented on creamy polenta under a crimson mantle of this good-to-the-last-drop elixir.
In Italy, the preparation of crudo (raw sliced fish) is an art on a par with sushi in Japan, but with its own Mediterranean style. Celebrity chef Mario Batali’s embrace of crudo has lifted its profile, but it’s still hard to find in New Jersey. Girasole may be the crudo capital of the state.
Few appetizers are more ethereal on the palate and pretty on the plate. At Girasole, the freshness and presentation are exemplary, and the selection is broad. In addition to specials, there are three regular crudos at $8 each: Italian sea bass (spigola) with celery and chervil; yellowtail with orange, tomato, and avocado; tuna with baby lettuce and tricolor pepper sauce.
There are also five fish carpaccios at $14 each, including salmon with sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, and black olives; boiled octopus with julienne vegetables; and swordfish with citrus fruits and capers.
The difference? Crudos, Iovino says, are hand-sliced and raw; carpaccios are flash frozen so they can be machine-sliced extra thin, then marinated as they thaw. “I’m in love with crudo and carpaccio,” he says. “It’s like pizza—you can do it so many ways. If it were up to me, I would have fifteen on the menu. But it’s still new to people.”
Traditional filet mignon carpaccios are on the bill, too—six different versions, including four served warm from the pizza oven, a style popular in Milan.
The gas-fired, white-brick oven is a piece of old-world craftsmanship, assembled by hand in the traditional conical shape. The pizzas that emerge from it are light, crisp, and wavy-edged. At a table in front of the oven, Iovino’s sisters, Maria and Carla, make the pizzas with a deft, low-rise toss-and-twirl.
About a dozen Iovino relatives work at the restaurant. Gino, who was born and raised in Naples, came to America in 1972 at eighteen and later opened an Atlantic City boutique, Eleganza, recently relocated to Caesars Pier. In 1988, Gino joined older brother Franco to open the original Girasole.
The head chef at both locations is Iovino’s cousin Rosalba Morici, who travels regularly to Italy to keep abreast of the latest culinary developments. The deputy chef in Atlantic City is Rosaria Iovino, who is married to Gino’s brother Antonio.
The people who work in the kitchen have “strong arms,” Iovino says, from making pasta every day. Pastas are another Girasole strong point. We had luscious wide ribbons of pappardelle with a porcini- and shiitake-mushroom sauce as luxurious as it was earthy.
Desserts here are classic—tiramisu, profiteroles, ricotta cheesecake, panna cotta—and well executed. I hope the faithful will forgive me saying it’s a shame they have Girasole all to themselves.—Eric Levin
3108 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City (609-345-5554), girasoleac.com. Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner: Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:30 pm; Friday through Sunday, 5:30 to 11 pm. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair access easy.Click here to leave a comment