Pulse: Atlantic City: Say Jay-Z Sent You

When the Borgata opened two years ago, it proclaimed itself “your happy place.” But Atlantic City’s original happy place was and continues to be a basement just off the Boardwalk called Chef Vola’s, a 12-table restaurant as service-oriented and immune to A.C.’s other ills (crime, poverty, bad fonts) as the Borgata itself. Not to mention a hell of a lot more exclusive.

“Okay, pretty lady, but if I get you in, will you write that the Geator got you in?” DJ Jerry Blavat boomed into the phone when I called frantically for help getting a reservation. Being friends with the Boss with the Hot Sauce, who grew up on the same block of McKean Street as Chef Vola’s present-day patriarch, Michael Esposito, was good enough for a same-day reservation on a jam-packed Tuesday at the underground establishment.

If you’re friends with some other satisfied customer — regular Barry Gutin, the owner of luxe lounge 32˚ and Cuba Libre, is one, as was Frank Sinatra in his day — the wait may be longer, months even, but you have to know someone to get in. “I’m kinda tough on the phone,” concedes Lou, son of Michael and taker of our order. “That’s why we’ve always had an unlisted phone number. There just aren’t a lot of spots.”

In a place as obsessed with remaking itself as Atlantic City, there is comfort in the continuity and ongoing secretiveness of Chef Vola’s. Where Sinatra and Frankie Avalon once found solace in breaded veal cutlets and banana cream pie, rapper-mogul Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, found his own “happy place” recently. In A.C. to inspect the progress of construction of the 40/40 Club, the “opulent sports bar” he co-owns on the Walk, Carter came three times over the summer; proof is on the wall and inside Lou’s camera phone.

According to Lou, the secret of Chef Vola’s, which the Espositos purchased from the Vola family in 1982, is never to allow itself to be dragged down by the disappointments of the world outside: “You gotta greet them when they come in, make sure they’ve got their wine, check up on them after their food has come, make sure they don’t order too much or too little food, and say goodbye to them when they leave.”

Or in the words of Michael’s wife Louise, who mans the kitchen, “It’s not enough to have a great salad or great apps or great desserts or a great veal dish. You have to do it all great, all the way through.”

It sounds simple, but it’s the sort of attention to detail and emphasis on flawless service that unifies Vola’s with places like the phenomenally successful 2,000-room, $1.1 billion Borgata, where anything from a pack of Marlboros to a pint of Phish Food can be rushed to a guest with a jones. In the employment center, the tenets of Borgata service are posted for all to see: “Acknowledge every customer who approaches within 10 feet of you.” “Greet every customer who comes within five feet.” At Vola’s, though they have no liquor license, Lou will personally bring a bottle of your choice from a nearby package store.

Time no longer stands still at Vola’s, though. “Ever since the Internet came along, it changed everything,” Lou opines. “Anyone can get our phone number.” Vola’s has sort of been “discovered” — and as demand has rocketed, the 12 tables play host to an ever more exclusive, accomplished crowd. “Hipper, younger, later, more celebrities” is how Louise sums it up. The cast of The Sopranos came last year. Bright young things clamor for the 9:30 spots on weeknights. As the evening wound down, a gang of 20-something blondes in glittery tops, accompanying an older man, left for the Borgata. “He’s a regular,” ­Louise explained. “They’re new.”