Restaurants come and go in a town like Atlantic City … especially inside the casinos. If a place isn’t offering what people are demanding, a restaurant can quickly find itself replaced by a newer, more exciting concept.
That’s why it’s impressive to see Grotto Italian Ristorante still going strong inside Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
“Grotto was built from the ground up shortly after Golden Nugget took over (from the former Trump Marina). So we have been open for nine years as this point,” notes Chef Jerry Costello.
Grotto is a classic Italian concept with a modern design located in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Golden Nugget’s casino floor. And it’s totally comfortable in that space. While some restaurants seem determined to disguise the fact that they are part of a casino, Grotto embraces it, with open walls offering direct views of the slots and table games. The oval-shaped bar is spacious and offers visual entertainment for customers via its wood-fired oven, which cranks out the many varieties of pizzas that have become so popular here.
“The wood-fired oven is pretty attractive — and they say people eat with their eyes first,” Costello remarks.
While that may be the case, for much of 2020 people couldn’t eat at Grotto at all. The pandemic forced the shutdown of the restaurant entirely, and due to its lack of outdoor space, Grotto was a no-go until finally reopening in February. Once they did, the crowds slowly began to trickle back in, and lately with COVID cases declining and dining restrictions lifting, it’s starting to feel more and more like the Grotto of old.
“More people are coming out, they are more relaxed and they are definitely enjoying themselves more,” says Grotto General Manager Christina Capuano.
big flavorsGrotto’s menu isn’t overly extensive, but that’s by design for now as they get new and returning staff members up to speed while re-entering the Atlantic City dining scene.
“We’re growing the menu. Right now it’s on the small side. But we focus on quality, and we only work with fresh product. Nothing is frozen,” Costello says.
But you don’t need a giant menu to succeed — you just need a menu with delicious items that people will want to return to order again and again – and that is something Grotto can easily boast.
The apps include Gamberoni Freddi ($18.50), a fancy moniker for shrimp cocktail, as well as other popular Italian starters like antipasto ($16) and Calamaretti Fritti ($15). But if you have to pick just one, the Polpette is the best way to start a meal here – a pair of their signature meatballs are served with marinara and a roasted Italian long hot pepper, which punches things up nicely with a bit of heat that counters the sweetness of the sauce. It’s easy to see why this remains one of their most popular menu items.
“The meatballs are all handmade with fresh ground beef and Italian sausage,” Costello says. “We par-fry them and finish them off in the oven. It’s a standout meatball. You get a little bit of basil on your tongue, plus the taste of the cheese. I always know that when a customer orders them once, they are going to come back for them again and again.”
Main entrees feature meaty favorites from both land and sea, with standouts like the Salmone Con Lenticchie ($32), which starts with pan-seared Atlantic salmon and adds roasted Cipollini onions, red lentils and asparagus with a chianti reduction; or the Filetto Di Manzo ($46), a petite beef filet with a wild mushroom demi paired with asparagus and roasted fingerling potatoes. Of course there is always the classic Pollo Parmigiana ($28) for those craving a simple yet delicious version of chicken parm.
“It’s funny — for the longest time chicken parm was selling like crazy, and then all the sudden the higher end stuff started to really move, too — stuff like veal and the petite filet entrée. We probably sold more of those in one night last week than we had in any of the weeks leading up to it,” Costello says.
But possibly the most craveable item on the menu is the Penne Al Forno ($23), a pasta dish served in a combo bolognese and pomodoro sauce with ricotta, parmigiano-reggiano and mozzarella. It’s somehow a meat sauce and a cream sauce and a tomato sauce all in one — and the cheeses just bring everything over the top. Don’t sleep on this.
And then there is the pizza. The wood-fired oven cranks out five different varieties of pies, each made with fresh dough. You can choose from a classic margherita ($14) with Roma tomatoes, mozzarella and basil; or get a bit more adventurous with the arugula pizza ($16), a lovely pie which features mozzarella, ricotta, roasted garlic, arugula, prosciutto and extra virgin olive oil and almost looks like a salad resting on top of a pizza. Or there is their signature “Meatzza” ($18), a carnivore’s delight loaded up with pepperoni, house-made meatballs and Italian sausage.
We didn’t have any room left for dessert, but the Strawberry Casata cake ($10) is on our must-do list for our next visit.
What’s new?With much time off to retool things, Grotto has returned with some new ideas, including an all-new happy hour.
“Right now we are offering a happy hour at the bar from 4 to 7 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, with a happy hour menu and specialty cocktails such as our signature peach bellini with prosecco and peach schnapps, as well as wines and domestic drafts and imported bottled beers,” Capuano says.
Grotto is one of the few bars around offering a happy hour special on weekends, as most bars limit deals like this to weeknights only.
For a happy hour menu, what Grotto offers is pretty extensive. Drafts of Yuengling, Peroni and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA can be had for $4, as can domestic bottles, while import bottled beers will run you $5. Select wines and seasonal sangrias are $7, while a list of specialty cocktails are available for $8 each and include the aforementioned Peach Bellini, as well as such interesting concepts as the Blueberry Basil Gimlet made with vodka, simple syrup, fresh lime juice basil and fresh blueberries; the Mango Madness with rum, amaretto, simple syrup and mango puree; the Negroni with gin, Campari and sweet vermouth; or the Italian Margarita—Grotto’s twist on the Mexican favorite—with amaretto joining the party with tequila and fresh lime juice.
A list of tasty apps line the menu, each priced at $8. They include favorites like calamari, bruschetta and the Sliders Pizzaiola — a trio of grilled beef sliders topped with oven-roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, among others.
At The Shore/ACWeekly