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Chef Vola's: Dinner With "Frank" and George, too!

Arguably the most difficult restaurant reservation in America is in Atlantic City at an eighty six year old landmark known as Chef Vola's. There is no listed phone number, no sign on the wood frame house; it is the last nondescript small white beach house on a short dead end street that only exists for a hundred yards. From the parking lot on the far side of the building you cannot see nor smell the Atlantic Ocean or the Boardwalk. You could as easily be in a rundown area of Hoboken as you could a run down area of Atlantic City.

And the "restaurant" is in the low roofed basement of the house that has no sign. The entrance is a narrow, partially obscured short walkway that looks like it leads to the alley behind the house. Rather it leads to a side door where the frame is barely tall enough to let a full grown human inside.

And they do not always answer their phone. They have an inflexible policy of not serving anyone without a reservation. Billy Crystal is reputed to have once been turned away.

Did I mention that they do not have a liquor license and do not even sell a glass of beer let alone a bottle of wine. And, that it is cash only-no credit cards?

I knew the "legend" of Chef Vola's and having been successful at snagging reservations at both the French Laundry and El Bulli, I felt truly fearless and confidant when I called.

The first of 15 or more times. Finally, on a late November weeknight around five o'clock I got through. I don't remember hearing the name of the restaurant when the phone was answered. Just a "hello." I hesitated and thought that if I asked a question, "is this Chef Vola's?" that I would give my innocence and ignorance away, clearly by asking the simple question I would be branded, "unworthy."

I, matter of factly, said that I would like to make a reservation for my wife and I-but I did not say when. I didn't want to give a reason for being told no. I was not asked when. I was asked if I had been to Chef Vola's before? I hesitated and lied. "Yes."

"Who were you here with?"

I was stunned. Shocked? "Who was I there with?" "Who?" WHO? Was he serious? They wanted to know who I knew that generously allowed me to accompany them on a visit? I wasn't prepared for this. I lied and said "Vincent."

"Vincent who?"

Oh my God! "Vincent who?" This was the stuff of my dreams. My nightmares!

"Vincent was a friend of a good friend of mine from Philly. Don't remember his last name but it was long, 10-12 letters or something."

"Ah! You mean Vincent C-------------------. He's one of our best customers!"

A pause.

"When would you like to come?"

Wow! I should lie more often! When would I like to come? I said that we were going to be in Atlantic City in several weeks and wanted to know which nights might be best. (Still didn't want to give a reason having come this far!)

"How about the day after Christmas?"

The day after Christmas? Who goes to Atlantic City the day after Christmas? I said, "OK, there's two of us. Say, seven o'clock."

"We've only got 5:30 or 9:30."

He was serious, too!!! My brief flash of confidence and sense of belonging burst, realizing that we were going to be relegated to the least desirable dinner times.

Well, I made the reservation and he again asked if I "remembered how to get there?" I lied again and said yes. He also told me the reason that he asked who I had come with was that the restaurant was very difficult to find (I would, of course, understand this having been there before...) and didn't know if I would need explicit directions. Also, they had a lot of regulars and many of their regulars gave directions to friends coming for the first time.

___________________

Wednesday night I thought about that conversation while my wife and I were walking around the white house in the rain trying to figure out how to get in. We were getting wet and maybe I should have been a bit more honest, maybe I had not needed to lie. Perhaps, he was REALLY just being helpful and knew that I really would have a problem figuring out how to get in, especially if it was raining. Which it was.

We saw a small door with a Zagat sticker on the glass and opened it.

Inside we found one of the most incredible dining rooms I have ever been in. Perhaps as much or more character and warmth as anywhere. Chef Vola's has a low slung ceiling, perhaps a bit more than seven feet high. (It is, after all, a basement. Literally.) But the ceiling is beamed with wooden planks spanning the walls for the entire length. On the walls of several sides of the room there was more wood framing with white washed walls into between the timbers. Soft pink tablecloths along with dim lighting and streaming tinseled Christmas decorations and carefully strung lights added to the feeling of a very private and very personal room that, curiously, had an overall romantic and intimate, special feeling to it.

"Frank" was everywhere. Photos of him on the walls, newspaper clippings, magazine clippings-apparently he had been a regular. On one wall was a signed photograph-with Michael and Louise Esposito standing on either side of George H. W. Bush. In the restaurant. I thought I saw a photo of Clinton and a half dozen or more congressmen. Numerous celebrities. A few Phillies, Flyers and Eagles, too. Including two coaches and a "good friend of Steven Van Zandt" at the table next to us. In all there were a total of 48 seats including two tables built in a room that had been carved into the area beneath the front steps of the porch above.

I sat at our table and my mouth dropped: I was not prepared for this. The place was not a basement "joint." It dripped comfort, romance and wanting to share the expressive obsession of its twenty five year owners who presented and caressed their restaurant as they would a son or daughter. Clearly, this was their life's love. And it showed. And they could not have been warmer, more welcoming, more actually caring. They really, honestly were doing everything in their power to make everyone in the room feel, indeed, special. They also seemed to know many of them. Louise, especially, IS Chef Vola's. Loquaciously sweet, obsessively focused neither a person nor a detail in the room escaped her. Her husband, Michael, seemed much more restrained, respectful and even indulgent of her presence.

There is a menu. The waiters also recite the evening's specials. All twenty or so of them. In detail. I handed my bottle of Dal Forno Valpolicella (what did you expect? Not too over the top but definitely a special bottle. I wanted to demonstrate my worthiness of being accepted into their home.)

We settled on a split course of linguine with Bolognese sauce, a split House salad (we were told the courses were large), a filet special with bleu cheese, a red snapper filet with crabmeat and champagne sauce and a lemoncello and butterscotch pie for dessert.

Our salads were brought first and they were disappointing. Iceberg lettuce, canned black olives, decent tomatoes, dices of a white cheese (mozz?) and vinegar and oil. The bread and breadsticks that accompanied this were not much better. In fact I noted that this felt exactly how a decent but no better restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy felt in the early 1970's. (I wondered if Chef Vola's had garlic bread since places like Maria's 300 made up for their salads with garlicky, oozing toasted slabs that I would travel the 80 miles roundtrip from D. C. just to have.)

Two bowls of pasta were brought out, each the size of a dinner size bowl anywhere else. The server told us we each had a half order. A half order? About this time another server with particularly strong forearms was carrying two twelve inch long, six inch wide oval platters each fully laden with fresh linguine and with either a Vodka sauce or the Bolognese sauce threatening to spill over the sides onto the floor.

Twelve dollars for one of these three pounds troughs!

There are restaurants like That's Amore and Logan's Roadhouse and places in the Bronx that serve huge platters of food like this. Most are not very good although there is at least one on Arthur Avenue that was excellent on a visit several years ago. Chef Vola's Bolognese sauce was as good as any I have had even in Bologna. And there was a lot of it. After finishing the linguine I took a spoon and scooped it like a rustic red stew.

A few minutes later our entrees were served. One of several house specialties (Bruni had raved about it on his only visit) was the Red Snapper. This was a two and one half pound fish that had been fileted with the result that a one pound + filet was on my plate topped with a quarter to a third pound of nugget size lumps of Indonesian crabmeat. Over all of this was a champagne cognac pesto cream sauce with a crown of a fresh chiffonade of basil. It was delicious. An outstanding conception-I knew I would have several excellent dinners out of it! For $34.00 this was an incredible bargain that remarkably tasted even better than the prodigious size was impressive.

My wife order a filet. This was a softball sized "top prime" aged butter crusted Filet (sixteen ounces?) topped with numerous chunks of slowly melting, oozing, dripping, caressing Maytag bleu cheese. Nested on a half pound of eight inch asparagus spears in their own pool of good butter.

I've had Luger's and Dallas' Del Frisco's in the '80's, Bisteca Fiorentina at Sostanza and Vescovino in Tuscany along with sliced beef of one kind or another at a number of three Michelin starred restaurants in Europe and New York. This was at least the equal of any. The $48.00 steak (well worth it!) was intensely flavorful, perfectly charred and cooked medium rare-an incredible steak, far superior to anything we had even fantasized about. At one point my wife noted that I was slicing the three inch tall hunk with my bread knife. I wasn't even aware that I was using the wrong knife.

Dessert didn't disappoint. In fact the warm rum butterscotch pie with dollops of fresh whipped cream and, especially, the intense lemoncello pie were wonderful compliments to what, quite honestly, was an amazing dinner. All from a kitchen, obscured in what must have once been a closet-a small closet-with only three behind the counter serving the forty eight out front as well or better than twelve would elsewhere.

We will go back. I will call as many times as I need to for whenever they will have me. It is "only" four hundred miles roundtrip" from Reston where we live to Chef Vola's. I believe this is the best "Italian American" restaurant in America. It is a regional treasure and landmark. I believe it is time that it become a national treasure and landmark.

A helluva dinner in someone's basement!

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  1. I'm so jeaolous. I've been living in Cape May for the past year and never was able to get in there when company was coming to town. Let me know next time you go and I'll join you. And you and Carol can spend the night at my place.

    1 Reply
    1. Reading this review has started my mouth watering for another visit! and to think the writer didn't even try the best dessert on the east coast, Louis' mom's home made riccota cheese pie!!!!
      Those who eat a Chef Volas are sworn to secrecy to never reveal its location or phone number>
      Now i suppose my waiting time between reservations goes from 2 to 3 months.

      3 Replies
      1. re: kenmc60

        Louise Esposito is testimony to the importance of a very good front of the room host. In fact she is as good, as welcoming and caring, friendly and warm as anyone I have ever met in a dining room anywhere. She is an endearing character who almost seems larger than life. A sweet, wonderful ambassador for her family's downstairs dining room and a very, very good reason-beside the excellent food and the room's ambience-for the enormous enduring success of this American original.

        1. re: kenmc60

          We go tomorrow night-for Valentine's Day. I assure you we will have at least one slice of her ricotta cheese pie if it is available.

        2. Entertaining review by JoeH who obviously loves the place, thanks. Many people think it's the best, others think it's really pretty mediocre, but worth a trip for sake of the legend. True they don't advertise but anyone with a computer can search for directions and the phone number. It's no harder to get a reservation than any small popular place. If you are from out of town and want to try it, just call well in advance of your visit to AC and you should be OK.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Rocket88

            The phone number is definitely not a secret since it's listed in Zagat.

            1. re: Rocket88

              I've learned that they consistently answer their phone between 4 and 5:30 when they open. Both before and after this it is haphazard. I must tell you that a dinner there on Valentine's Day was somewhat of a different experience than the day after Christmas. Still exceptional but not quite as remarkable as the first. A packed dining room 20 minutes after opening at 5:30 can make a difference along with the owners not "working" the room. Of course Valentine's Day is a day that I should know better than to go out on...

            2. During our annual sojourn to AC for Superbowl weekend (GO GIANTS!), we had our usual dinner at Chef Vola's. Instead of the pedestrian salad we shared a "side order" of sauteed artichokes and mushrooms as an appetizer--a delicious huge platter of large mushrooms and artichoke hearts sauteed in garlicky olive oil. We then shared a linguine with red clam sauce, again, a huge platter of pasta with "freshouttatheshell" clams in red sauce, which was possibly the best clam sauce we'd ever had--plump, juicy and briny clams in a wonderfully seasoned sauce. We also shared a chicken special, which was a concoction of chicken breasts, bits of pepperoni, cheese, and I don't remember what else, but it was delish. For dessert we forced ourselves to share a good tartufo--I don't know if it was house made or not. We brought a bottle of a Ruffino Classico Reserve Ducale Oro, which went perfectly with our meal.

              1. I want to take my mother to this place. I can't take her there this Mother's Day but next year I WILL.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Lewes17266

                  Thank you, Lewes17266, I believe she will absolutely love it!!!

                2. It has been a year since our last visit to Chef Vola's. From our house in the D. C. suburbs it is about 400 miles roundtrip. For our last several visits it has been more than worth it. My question is: has anything changed over the last year or so? We're about to do the trip again...if we can get in.

                  1. Joe: I commented on the previous post but my comments were deleted. Regardless, this is a great post, and the place sounds very intriguing. Not being from Jersey, I had never heard of Chef Vola's, but I definitely want to call and give it a whirl. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to pop our last '88 Sassicaia. Nice review, and we look forward to trying it. -mJ

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: njfoodies

                      Thanks, njfoodies, much appreciated.

                    2. Well, some things-reliably-never change. I called Chef Vola's tonight to make a reservation for the first week of February. The very first question that I was asked after 30 or 40 rings on my fifth call was "have you been here before?" The exact same question that I was asked before and which intimidated me then as no other even today.

                      With conviction, this time, I told the truth and said "yes."

                      We look forward to returning to Chef Vola's which by now has become an annual tradition. And a trek from Reston, VA where we live. Still, it is worth it.

                      1. My wife and I are going to Chef Vola's on Thursday night. We'd originally made a reservation for Friday night and, needing to change it (and hoping there would be something available) I called information on my cell phone.

                        Their phone number is listed!!! Listed!!!!

                        Couldn't believe it. I must note that they don't answer it until after 4:00PM.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Joe H

                          I tried a few weeks ago to call them after 4 to try to get us a reservation for sometime in the March or April timeframe and it just rang. Will have to try them again soon. Enjoy your dinner! -mJ

                          1. re: njfoodies

                            They do answer their phone but I've found they consistently answer it between 5:00 and 6:00PM and it is hit or miss after this. Yesterday, I tried perhaps 10 times between 2 and 4 without any luck. After ten rings or so a recording comes on to leave the day and time for a reservation and they will call you back. I don't trust messages like this so I kept calling. At almost exactly 4 they answered. Please note that this was on Tuesday that I was asking for Thursday. This will be our fourth visit since I wrote the original above. Almost every time that I have called between 5 and 6 they have answered if it was not busy. Remember, if you go, it's BYOB (no corkage) and cash only.

                            1. re: Joe H

                              Thanks Joe H, and yes, I do know it's BYO! Woo hoo! One of the other main reasons we want to go and give it a whirl! We're always searching out BYO's! -mJ

                        2. I always feel strange reading stories like this, because my experience with Chef Vola's the half-dozen times I've been there in the past 12 years or so has always been like this: My friend and I roll up to our hotel in the late afternoon. We call Chef Vola's and make a reservation for that night. We eat.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: mrfinewine

                            Last night at 5:35 the room was 2/3 full five minutes after opening. @6 it was full. Somehow it felt a bit more cramped last night than it has in the past (I think a total of about 45 to 50 seats) and Louise was not there. Still, dishes that I would not order elsewhere (i.e. veal parmigiana-on the bone at Chef Vola's) are fantastic. I say this because this is a great Italian American restaurant. It is not suppose to be Del Poste or Vetri but in its own way and with the "character" of the room we continue to love it. The lemoncello pie also continues as a great slice of pie.

                            My guess is that with a blizzard literally forecast for tonight and tomorrow Atlantic City will be empty. Walking around the Borgata last night at 10 it was dead. A shame because with Super Bowl weekend the place should have been packed. The storm couldn't have come at a worse time. FWIW we heard someone on the phone at Chef Vola's say that "as long as the Expressway is open, we'll be open." I guess that sums it up.

                            1. re: Joe H

                              We just were at Chef Vola's on Tues 2/16. When we made reservations the week earlier, they answered the phone the 1st time. We got the same "Ever been here before" and "How did you find out about us?' questions.

                              Once we got there and were seated, we quickly saw that the place oozed with shtick. From the long list of "specials" recited to the Goodfellas soundtrack playing, to the older Momma's working the room, it seemed that a lot of the appeal was just "being there".

                              For appetizers, we split a linguini with clams (white). The waiter proudly stated that the clams were freshly shucked from the shell and "chopped up". Now why would a chef do that? Maybe because by saying that the chef chopped up the clams, they could hide the fact that the clams were clearly canned? The sauce was very bland.

                              For entrees, based on the recommendations from fellow chowhounders, I ordered the Veal Parm on the bone. It was a nice size. The sauce however, tasted like it was cooking all day, slightly burned. The meat was a good piece of meat. Overall, the disk was nothing spectacular. Just a $37 veal parm. Ouch!
                              My wife ordered the Chilean Sea Bass. It was just ok. She thought the sauce was way too sweet.
                              For dessert, I had the frozen Banana cream pie. Again, nothing I haven't had in a diner.

                              The service was 5 star. The owner walked around the room. He knew what everyone had ordered. The rest of the staff was very attentive and nice.

                              Overall, I get the whole ambiance/history of the place. However, the food was below average. Being that I would rather eat great food in a wood hut vs below avg food in a place that oozes charm, I would choose the good food every time. This is an overpriced run of the mill red-sauce place.

                              Huge thumbs down for Chef Vola.

                              1. re: johnpops1

                                As is our custom, we had dinner here the Friday night of Superbowl weekend. Service was not as stellar as in the past, probably because the staff was nervous about the impending blizzard. But our dinner was just as good as ever. Regarding the clam sauce, you may have never had it made with freshly shucked chopped clams, but I have, and Chef Vola's are certainly not outof a can--furthermore, the owners of CV's are good people, and for you to post on CH that they blatantly lie about the source of their ingredients is outof line, imo. Regarding the veal CHOP parm--it is made with a large butterflied, pounded CHOP, not cutlets, when was the last time you paid less than $37 for a large veal chop? The sauce was not to your liking, fair enough. I continue to look forward to my yearly pilgramage to Chef Vola's next year--hopefully the Giants will be in the Superbowl!

                                1. re: Marge

                                  The banana cream pie is fairly good but not in league with either Emeril's or the Buckhead Diner. I believe the single best dessert is the Lemoncello pie. Both are made from scratch by Louise everyday. It IS a red sauce place, I just think it's the best.

                                  1. re: Marge

                                    It is personally interesting to read this thread again. The last several posts refer to a night just before the two plus feet of snow fell in the Mid Atlantic. Only now have we finished repairing our house from the damage done to it from that storm. My wife and I will be back at Chef Vola's in several weeks. This time we won't spend our dinner worrying about the impending storm, nor will we check out of our hotel early. Rather, we'll enjoy Vola's. And, they won't be worrying about whether the AC Expressway will be open the next day.

                                  2. re: johnpops1

                                    In answer to the question "now why would a chef do that" in regards to chopping up freshly shucked clams for clam sauce, perhaps you should ask Rick Moonen, one of the foremost seafood chefs in the country--his recipe for clam sauce calls for chopping the fresh clams...