The Casino File: Jerry Longo’s meatballs & martinis – A tasty piece of the revival at Bally’s Atlantic City
If you have any doubts about the desire of Bally’s Corp. to return Bally’s Atlantic City to relevance (not to mention sustained profitability) after years of benign neglect on the part of its former owner, you only need to hit the midtown casino’s sixth floor. That’s where you’ll find Jerry Longo’s meatballs & martinis.
Located adjacent to Guy Fieri’s Chophouse, Longo’s opened in the spring. That it replaced the generically bland Buca di Beppo, a national chain, speaks volumes about the direction in which Bally’s is headed.
The casual, unpretentious eatery that offers dramatic skyline and ocean views is the fourth outpost for the operation founded in the Federal Hill section of Providence, R.I. (think South Philadelphia with a New England accent) more than 30 years ago by Jerry Longo, a South Philly native who entered the restaurant business after a successful career as a casino executive. There are also eateries at two other Bally’s properties: Twin River Casino Hotel in Lincoln, R.I. and Dover Downs Hotel & Casino in Delaware’s capital city. The original restaurant years ago outgrew its original location and today calls nearby Westerly R.I. home.
While the flagship location has changed its address and been joined by the other three, Longo’s core operating philosophy remains constant: The delivery of the kind of food on which generations of Italian-Americans were raised in a familiar, welcoming atmosphere.
According to Frankie Storione, the company’s old-school brand ambassador and Longo’s lifelong friend, the importance of food to Italian-American culture is the driving principle. His people, reasons Storione, “Eat to live and live to eat. We're talking about what we're having for dinner while we eat lunch. An hour after dinner, my father would send my brother to go buy banana splits; when he came back, he’d send him for Chinese food.”
As such, the menu evokes the kind of “red gravy” joints found in neighborhood Italian spots in Philadelphia, New York and other big cities. That means such staples as fried calamari (done “Rhode Island style” with fiery; vinegar-doused cherry peppers); eggplant rollatini; spaghetti with crab gravy topped with jumbo lump crab; chicken Milanese and meatball salad. But the bill of fare at Bally’s also includes some less-familiar dishes.
One is Bucatini all' Amatriciana, a pasta dish made with guanciale (pronounced gwaan-CHAA-lay), which Storione explains is made from the cheek of the pig. Another is Prenestino (Signature di Roma), a pizza made with mascarpone cheese (as well as mozzarella) and potatoes. All four of the menu’s pizzas are oblong, not round, and are prepared “Roman-style,” which means their crusts are more akin to thinner, crispier focaccia than to the chewier crusts to which Americans are more accustomed.
And while Longo’s pays homage to bygone eras, it certainly recognizes changes in Americans’ diets. “We've got gluten-free dishes,” offers Storione. “We make vegetable dishes with gluten-free pasta. We try to accommodate everybody.”
It’s important to note that while Longo’s price points are commensurate with other upscale AyCee-casino restaurants, the portions are more-than-generous: Most dishes can easily be shared by two (or more) adults.
But top-shelf Italian food is hardly scarce in Atlantic City casinos. What sets Longo’s apart from the pack is its environment. For instance, visitors are greeted by two blackjack tables (which are operated—and, says Storione, extremely popular--on weekends). The walls are filled with photographs of Longo with celebrities; shots and portraits of the late James Gandolfini of The Sopranos predominate as he and Longo were especially close. Nonetheless, only one bold-faced name, veteran character actor Richard Jenkins (Berlin Station), is immortalized on the menu, which informs patrons that the spaghetti and meatball offering is his “favorite.”
Fans of Martorano’s at Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City will notice a couple of aspects the two joints share (fun fact: Longo and Steve Martorano are friends from their South Philly childhoods). As does Martorano’s, Longo’s screens vintage films on wall-mounted video monitors. And like Martorano’s, Longo’s converts into an after-dinner-hours dance club. But while Martorano’s sticks to a diet of gangster films, Longo’s goes with classic black-and-white flicks (e.g. On the Waterfront and Casablanca). And whereas Martorano’s favors more contemporary sounds, pop-and-rock hits of the 1960s and ‘70s are pumped over Longo’s sound system.
And because dancing can induce hunger, Longo’s has a moderately priced, Friday-and-Saturday-late-night menu featuring such dishes as wings, cheesesteaks and a South Philly staple, pepper-and-egg sandwiches.
According to Storione, the tunes and movies are part and parcel of the dining room’s goal of bringing patrons back to different, likely more pleasant, points in their lives.
“They were happy times,” he says. “And I want to help people recreate that. If we get their minds off of what's going on for an hour or two, then we did something good.”