Atlantic City's tables are packed—and not just the ones covered in green felt. Meet the chefs who are transforming this historic seaside resort into a culinary epicenter.
The New Kid
Marc Forgione, American Cut
Luck is something that everyone chases in Atlantic City. But once in a while, it's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, as Iron Chef Marc Forgione knows all too well. "Believe it or not, I was looking at a restaurant in Las Vegas," says Forgione, who will unveil American Cut at Revel this spring. "And I wasn't really looking to open anything at all, but after the show, lots of people came knocking. Just as plans for Vegas fell through, Revel fell into my lap that same week. It was perfect timing."
Though the world now knows Forgione for his cooking-show exploits, New Yorkers have flocked to his eponymous Michelin-ranked restaurant since 2008 for New American cuisine of the highest order. Armed with signature dishes like chicken under a brick and surf and turf—here a 28-day-aged, 48-ounce Tomahawk rib-eye chop paired with chili lobster—Forgione is eager to carve out a new steakhouse experience with American Cut. This, his first restaurant outside of New York, boasts 300 seats and some serious Art Deco flair. "We have some cool concepts going on," he says. "We're combining our raw bar with an old-world charcuterie bar—pâtés, steak tartare, and rillettes blended with shrimp cocktails and oysters. We've taken elements of Japanese cuisine, too, like hamachi and sashimi."
Though Forgione is no stranger to the Jersey Shore (after college, he spent a few summers in Manasquan), he has visited Atlantic City only a handful of times before. This summer he will spend a lot more time in town overseeing American Cut. In a way, he says, things have come full circle. "I'm really looking forward to spending the whole summer here," says Forgione. "A New York City guy spending some time at the Jersey Shore—it's kind of ironic to be back here after all these years." Revel, 500 Boardwalk, 855-348-0500
Chris Scarduzio, Scarduzio's Steak Sushi Lounge
"Owning three restaurants is like having kids: You focus your attention on the one that needs it most at that time." It's a work philosophy that has served Chris Scarduzio well over the past six years. The chef opened Mia at Caesars in Atlantic City in 2006, then Table 31 in Philadelphia in 2008 and, finally, Scarduzio's Steak Sushi Lounge at Showboat this past July. With Table 31 firmly secured as the city's go-to spot for outdoor dining and power lunching, and Mia comfortably established as one of AC's premier Italian restaurants, Scarduzio has been busy tending to his youngest enterprise. "The menu is always evolving; I'm not the type to put together a menu and keep it for a year," he says. Seasonal influences keep things fresh, while prime cuts from notable New York City butcher DeBragga and sushi (sashimi in particular, says Scarduzio) anchor the overall experience.
This summer the restaurant, which boasts an intimate dining room carved out with circular booths and an open kitchen, promises to be a big draw, spurred on by the recent success of Sunday's late-night specials. Like other Shore restaurateurs, Scarduzio is encouraged by Atlantic City's increasingly high-profile culinary scene. But he is quick to note that the customers really are the lifeblood of this evolving food culture. "Diners are really laid-back and very appreciative," he says. "If you're busy and there's 20 minutes between courses, they don't get upset. They're on vacation; they wind down as soon as they set foot in Atlantic City." Even with a trio of restaurants to keep him busy, Scarduzio hints that his stable is still growing. "Surprises are coming—in Atlantic City and Philly," he says. "I'm not done yet." Showboat, 801 Boardwalk, 609-343-4330
The Jersey Boy
Demetrios Haronis, Fin
The glass-lined wall that overlooks the gorgeous seascape is reason enough to visit Tropicana's Fin. But executive chef Demetrios Haronis ensures that the restaurant offers more than just a pretty view by serving some of the freshest fish on the East Coast. "Besides seafood, we like to focus on Jersey-fresh ingredients: produce, Jersey wines, sausage, cheese," Haronis says. "You name it—somewhere in Jersey, someone is making it, so we try to utilize it."
The Jersey Shore definitely holds a special place in this chef's heart: The Wildwood native started working in his parents' restaurant at age 10 and has since held posts at local shore landmarks from Cape May to Longport, including The Lobster House, Two Mile Inn & Crab House, and the Longport Inn. Over the course of his career, these seaside kitchens and the resulting relationships with local fisherman have inspired him to take advantage of the ultra-fresh catches that populate these local waters. His favorite? Day-boat scallops caught off the coast of Cape May. "I love being near the shore," Haronis says. "Even if I don't go to the beach or the ocean, I love to be able to see it and know that it's there. " Tropicana Casino & Resort, 2831 Boardwalk, 609-340-4000
Aram Mardigian, Wolfgang Puck American Grille
Aram Mardigian doesn't get starstruck very often. He has seen his share of celebrities throughout nearly two decades of working with Wolfgang Puck Restaurants. But he will never forget the first time he worked the Oscars party at Puck's legendary West Hollywood haunt Spago. "George Burns came right up to the line and asked if we had scallops," says Mardigian. "I was working the salad station that night and just acted like a deer in headlights. I went from working in a restaurant in a small city in upstate New York to Sunset Boulevard. I just kept thinking, What am I doing here?"
Seventeen years later, Mardigian has crisscrossed the country with Puck—from Chicago to Las Vegas to Palo Alto to Napa Valley, before finally returning to the East Coast in 2007, taking a position as executive chef at Wolfgang Puck American Grille at Borgata. Here Mardigian maintains his longtime mentor's culinary vision while experimenting with the seasonal ingredients that define both the Grille's casual and fine dining menus. "When a new season breaks, we move into the vegetables that are available and offer different specials on a rotating basis, sometimes several each day," says Mardigian. Not surprisingly, Jersey-fresh produce like corn and tomatoes make for some of the restaurant's most popular dishes come summertime. Wood-fired pizzas, house-made pastas, and what the chef calls "the most sought-after burger in the city" are all menu staples. As for Mardigian, his favorite AC dishes are served at places off the beaten path. "My wife and I love ethnic food—Indian or Thai," he says. "Real mom-and-pop restaurants. They are few and far between these days. But we don't mind looking." Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, 1 Borgata Way, 609- 317-1000
Eugene Ess, Plate American Cafe
An Austrian import with a strong sense of wanderlust, Ess boasts a résumé containing the famous names and revered institutions you would expect from a world-class executive pastry chef. From baking actor Robert Wagner his favorite cake to crafting a chocolate piano in a Canadian Four Seasons for Liberace, Ess's culinary commissions have taken him from Atlantic City to Las Vegas and back again.
After his first stint in the States, at the famous Watergate Hotel in Washington, during Nixon's presidency (where he occasionally catered for the White House), Ess traveled to Atlantic City to work at the Trump Castle, now the Golden Nugget. He then jetted off to Las Vegas in 1989, where he whipped up desserts at the Mirage, at the time one of the biggest casino resorts in the world. "One thing about working in a casino is it never gets boring," says Ess of his longevity in the fast-paced world of casino dining. While he has traversed the globe and satisfied many a famed sweet tooth, Ess is still glad to have settled in Atlantic City, where he finds that, finally, he can take a little bit of a breather in the nearby Jersey countryside. "When I first came here to Atlantic City, it was very high pressure. When I went out to Vegas, it was just the opposite—very laid-back. Now it's reversed, and I can relax." Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, 1000 Boardwalk, 609-449-1000
The Rising Star
Erica Gant, The Continental
Erica Gant may not be the oldest working chef in Atlantic City, but she may very well be the wisest. After all, she is smart enough to know that when the Jersey Shore falls into its annual off-season lull, it's best to enjoy every second. "I might be one of the few chefs that actually enjoys cooking at home," says Gant, sous chef at The Continental at The Pier Shops at Caesars, of her favorite winter pastimes. "When summer comes, I have no life; it's just nonstop running. Especially here, which is the first place I've worked that serves lunch." Many lunches, in fact, as the seaside offshoot of Starr Restaurants' Continental concept has been a runaway hit with shoregoers since 2006. (Starr Restaurants also owns Buddakan, at The Pier Shops; the two restaurants share a kitchen.) On its faux patio, groups gather for The Continental's rainbowcolored cocktails and signature family-style dishes, which here include lots of seafood specials.
Gant migrated to Atlantic City in 2006 from North Jersey to take a position as sous chef at Bobby Flay Steak at Borgata. After five years there, and following a brief stint at Harrah's Dos Caminos, Gant assumed the role of sous chef at The Continental this past July, in the thick of vacation season. With another busy summer on the horizon, Gant recalls the invaluable lessons she has learned over the years from her pedigreed employers. "The places that I've worked have been very corporate, but you have more creativity in many ways. You have to appreciate and harness that, especially here—the volume is insane. You learn how to handle the amount of people that we serve." The Pier Shops at Caesars, 1 Atlantic Ocean, 609-674-8300
Luke Palladino, Luke Palladino
This Italian chef is also an astute businessman who has helped influence the development of Atlantic City's restaurant scene for more than a decade. From his arrival in 2003 at Borgata with not just one, but three Italian restaurant concepts—ranging from high-end, composed plates to quick eats—he proved his mastery of the cuisine while earning his stripes as a restaurateur. The owner of a critically acclaimed restaurant and catering company in Northfield, New Jersey, Palladino is known around town for revolutionizing South Jersey dining. "Coming here with new restaurants and projects was a no-brainer because I didn't think there was anything really compelling," Palladino explains. "Restaurants here were tired and old. I liked Borgata's vision to change the face of Atlantic City and attract a whole new market."
Now huge crowds flock to his swanky, stylish namesake restaurant at Harrah's for a taste of Palladino's innovative cooking style, modern approach, and healthy Italian ingredients sourced from local family farms (suitably, many belonging to Italian families). Harrah's reaps the benefits of housing such a top-notch eatery, and the successful partnership has prompted Palladino to launch another project with casino giant Revel this summer. Says Palladino: "Our goal is to stay here and continue to grow. I believe in this market. I love it here." Harrah's Resort, 777 Harrah's Blvd., 609-441-5576
PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN SUNG