F or much of last summer, I tried every day to reserve a table at Angeline, the newest restaurant at the Borgata in Atlantic City. Tables were available at the casino hotel’s other top-tier restaurants—Izakaya, Old Homestead Steakhouse, Wolfgang Puck American Grille and Bobby Flay Steak—but Angeline, which opened in May, was fully booked. Not until after Labor Day was I able to get in.
That crush had a lot to do with the gravel-voiced, guy-next-door appeal of Angeline’s upbeat creator, Michael Symon. An Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner (Best Chef, Great Lakes, 2009), Symon, 48, is probably better known for cohosting The Chew, ABC’s Daytime Emmy-winning cooking show, than for his restaurants in Cleveland (his hometown), Columbus, Indianapolis, Detroit and airports in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Another factor might be that Angeline returns New Jersey’s most popular cuisine, Italian, to Borgata’s lineup after the closing of Fornelletto last April. It may comfort the Fornelletto fans, who mourned its passing on Yelp, to know that Severo Vazquez, Fornelletto’s sous chef, is now executive chef at Angeline, preparing Symon’s recipes, and that much of Fornelletto’s staff came with him.
Angeline is Symon’s first fully Italian restaurant, and I have to admit I was skeptical. Lola, his Cleveland bistro, is New American. Lolita, also in Cleveland, served some Italian dishes in a Mediterranean menu before a 2016 fire shut it down. But Symon grew up in a Greek and Italian family. “My mom is half Sicilian,” he says, “and we built the menu around a lot of the food I grew up eating.”
Angeline is his mother’s name, and her lasagna is the new restaurant’s signature dish. At $29, it comes to the table as a neat stack of ripple-edged pasta separated by layers of ricotta and tomato sauce that gets its robust flavor from a long simmer with beef, pork, veal and Italian sausage. My guest and I were about to divide it when our server, a gentleman with an old-school manner, said, “Let me do that for you.” He took it aside, sectioned it and brought it back on two plates. It was magnificent.
My two visits to Angeline largely undid my skepticism. The food was gratifying, the service polished and friendly, the wide-ranging wine list an invitation to adventure for Italophiles.
“I like to champion the lesser-known grape varietals that can offer good value and pleasantly surprise people,” says wine director Brian Deibel.
A fine example is the Scinniri I had with a glorious grilled Creekstone strip steak crusted with porcini powder, fennel seed, chili flakes, salt and pepper. This red blend prominently features nerello mascalese, a grape indigenous to Sicily’s volcanic soils that Deibel prizes for “its red fruits, spice and earthy notes, with the finesse of quality pinot noir.”
Deibel offers this, and 21 other still wines, by the glass (5-ounce pour) or the less familiar quartino (8 ounces). “It’s another way to provide guests with flexibility in their beverage choices,” he says.
Among cocktails, a foamy, coral-colored Garibaldi Wallbanger stood out. A clever riff on a Harvey Wallbanger, it adds a dash of coconut milk and Pellegrino blood-orange soda to the Galliano-based drink.
The 223-seat restaurant, designed by Symon’s wife, Liz, and a New York design firm, is striking and glamourous. In the space that once held Seablue by Michael Mina, one of Borgata’s original restaurants, Angeline has a wide, darkly gleaming bar up front. Its coppery shelves are suspended from the ceiling so that they appear to float in midair.
Beyond the bar, the dining room offers contrasting seating areas, marble-topped tables, and a few free-standing, horseshoe-shaped banquettes. The open kitchen is on the right. On the left is a handsomely wallpapered area (with windowed, pull-out partitions, available for private parties).
The large menu begins with formaggi and salumi, antipasti, soups, and salads. Many of these are easily shared. My ideal meal would begin with the textural delights of a confit of artichoke hearts in in an herbaceous mint dressing, topped with breadcrumbs and toasted. The meal would include the escarole salad, leaves torn, tossed with lemon vinaigrette, Parmesan and, yes, more artichokes, these crunchy and shaved. I’d also recommend the roasted sweet and hot peppers antipasto, tangy with vinegar, soothed by a slice of creamy-centered burrata.
Next time, I would skip the Caesar—its dressing had no pep—and the caponata, which arrived ice cold instead of the proper cool to room temperature.
Lasagna is not the only worthy pasta. Squat tubes called paccheri collect the delicious lobster-tomato sauce, as rich in chopped lobster meat as you have a right to expect for $39. Gemelli, though, needed something more emphatic than olive oil to tie together the pasta twists, browned and crumbled lamb sausage, and rapini shoots.
Apart from thin swordfish fillets that tasted less than fresh, I enjoyed three of the best protein entrées I’ve had in nearly a decade of reviewing for NJM. One of those was the strip steak ($50), which came with caramelized garlic cloves and a swirl of reduced balsamic, each complementing the other.
Porchetta, a special, delivered slow-roasted hunks of pork tenderloin, pork belly and puffed curls of fried pork skin with a piquant anchovy-garlic-herb stuffing. An audacious apricot-and-pear mostarda, sweet and sour, lifted it higher.
If Jersey has a sentimental favorite Italian dish, it just might be chicken parm. Angeline’s was delicious in a thin crust that stayed crisp under a blanket of lush tomato sauce and browned, melted mozzarella. It was $27, but I pay $15 at the red-gravy joint in my neighborhood, and this was twice as good.
For dessert, only a peach crostada fell short, the fruit dull and the crust clunky. Fortunately, the cassata was excellent. A Sicilian custard-and-sponge cake with anise and citrus, it was packed with sliced strawberries and crusted with slivered almonds.
A rewarding chocolate torte wrapped in dark ganache looked like a brick, but proved to be light. Tiramisu for two, pleasingly accented with cinnamon, came in a large bowl. I did not keep it all to myself, but believe me, I wanted to.
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$24; pastas, $24-$39; entres, $27-$52; desserts, $8-$14
Ambience:Lively, modern and swank
Service:Informed, capable, helpful
Wine list:Classic and Italian cocktails with modern twists; large wine list, rich in Italian