There’s an “air of secrecy” surrounding certain establishments, then there’s Chef Vola’s. This unmarked, cash-only feasting hall has no advertised phone number, email, or website, equated by one New York Times food critic to “a game of hide and seek.” The space comes by it naturally: It was likely once a speakeasy.
Before it became a restaurant in 1921, the building that now houses Chef Vola’s was a rooming house owned by brothers Joe and Pina Vola. Joe took to cooking nightly dinners for their tenants while selling liquor in the basement, the restaurant’s current owner told the Press of Atlantic City. With infamous mayor Enoch “Nucky” Johnson—the true-life figure of Boardwalk Empire fame—living a block away, it’s likely he paid a visit or two in his time. Ironically, the restaurant today is B.Y.O.B.
After decades of selling consistently outstanding Italian classics in monstrous portions in their no-frills location blocks from the boardwalk, Chef Vola’s now requires patrons to place reservations months in advance to get a table. If it’s become exclusive, it’s only by virtue of its own popularity, the restrictions of a 65-seat dining room, and its loyalty to longstanding customers. Run by the Esposito family since 1982, the husband-and-wife-led team won a James Beard “American Classics” Award in 2011 for upholding a menu and ambience that would make an Italian-American grandma feel right at home.
For those who do manage to get a table in the bustling and tightly-packed dining room, the veal parm stands out as Vola’s marquee dish, while the crab cakes sprinkled with olive oil and the cannellini green bean salad with provolone are close contenders. And for what it’s worth, legend has it Frank Sinatra asked to be buried with one of Chef Vola’s banana cream pies.