“I feel like we’ve been transported to Italy,” I remark to my dinner companion, Alex. Impeccably-dressed waiters in black suits carry bottles of Tuscan wines and parmesan cheese rolls, while instrumental music sets the mood. Near the host stand, Italian ingredients and housemade liquors are displayed.
“Your table is ready,” says the dining room captain, as he leads us into the dimly lit dining room, the romantic ambiance immediately enveloping us.
As I pick up the wine list to begin perusing, a waiter comes to the table carrying an enormous Parmesan cheese wheel and hand cuts a generous chunk onto our plates. From there, we’re brought Italian tapas of bruschetta, mussels, sopressata, marinated zucchini and a sumptuous bread basket containing white and wheat baguettes and freshly made foccacia crisps. We immediately dig in, trying to act reserved and classy but not being able to contain our eagerness to savor the flavors — the fresh garlic of the mussels, the sweetness of fresh tomatoes on the bruschetta and the salty pork of the sopressata — in our mouths. It’s also always a plus when free food is brought out before you even order.
We finally work up the self control to put down our forks and begin looking over the wine list. It’s impressive, with a large selection from Italy and the United States as well as a few other international bottles, for example, a Callia Malbec from Argentina, a Penfolds Shiraz from South Australia and a 2007 The Foundry Cape of Good Hope Viognier from South Africa. In the end, we decide on a 2007 Puiatti Zuccole Sauvignon Blanc from Veneto. After swirling the glass I take a sip and let the liquid sit on my tongue before rolling it around. It’s light and elegant with a round mouth feel, a hint of sweetness and refreshingly fruity acidity. We choose the bottle because we want something affordable, and at $30 it definitely succeeds in pleasing both our palates and our wallets.
Knowing we are pleased with our selection, the waiter leaves the bottle on ice next to our table and we open our menus to begin our big decision. The dishes showcased are reminiscent of the Abuzzo region of Italy. Nestled along the country’s coast, it is one of Italy’s most fertile regions. Additionally, because in Italy it is typical to use a farm-to-table approach, Il Mulino brings these concepts to Atlantic City by using simple, fresh ingredients to create satisfying, flavorful dishes.
“What are you leaning toward?” asks Alex, her eyes frantically scanning the extensive menu. “The chicken and veal dishes all look good, although I’m kind of in the mood for seafood. And then there’s the pastas and risottos.”
She is right. Everything looks good, from the “Scampi alla Francese,” jumbo shrimp egg battered with lemon and white wine and served with spinach to the lightly-breaded dijon musard-glazed rack of lamb served in brown sauce to the homemade cannelloni pasta stuffed with veal, lamb, beef and spinach and topped with bechamel and tomato sauce.
In the end, we decide to go for the carb-heavy dishes made with uniquely Italian ingredients. The pastas also make sense to share, as you’re able to order half portions and get two separate pastas for the price of one. We decide on the seafood risotto with assorted Mediterranean shellfish, along with two pasta dishes from the specials, a pesto tortellini and black truffle ravioli.
Ordering pasta at Il Mulino is like sitting front row at a fascinating culinary show, as we can see waiters adding herbs, oils and proteins to pans in a truly open kitchen — it’s just a long table you can cook on — in the dining room. It doesn’t take long for our food to arrive — heaping plates of food that will soon become memories. As I have visited Italy personally, I can’t help but be taken back to certain places with each bite. I start with a sample of the pesto tortellini, the flavors of garlic, basil and pine nuts taking me back to Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre, a region famed for its unique basil-rich pesto. My travel companions and I would sit on our balcony overlooking the Italian Riviera, enjoying homemade meals of bruschetta and linguine topped with the local delicacy.
Next I move on to the truffle ravioli, which transports me to Chianti where I visited an organic wine and balsamic farm. The owner also produced truffle oil, and told us about how he would take his truffle hunting dog out at 3am so nobody would know where he found his delicious truffles. I was invited into the vineyard to do a tasting of his biodynamic wines, balsamics and truffle oils with local breads, cheeses and ice creams, and at this moment I’m right back on the farm.
Finally, it’s time for the seafood risotto. This dish first takes me back to New York, to days spend fishing and clamming with my father on his boat. Our family is from Naples, and I can remember sunbathing by the port before enjoying fresh shrimp, clams and scallops at the local restaurants.
Although Alex and I thought a pricier menu meant small portions, the dishes leave us full and satisfied after only a few bites. That being said, we’re both very against wasting good food, not to mention we wouldn’t be able to bring it home as we were traveling, so we proceed to finish every last bite. And despite our bulging stomachs and tightening skirts, it is completely worth it.
“And now for some of our homemade grappa,” smiles our waiter, pouring Alex and I a complimentary sample of the aperitif in a clear, tulip-shaped glass. “Would you like some dessert?”
Although we know we shouldn’t, hearing words like “tiramisu,” “tartufo” and “homemade Italian cheesecake” make us think we may have just a bit more room. We decide to share a slice of the flourless chocolate cake.
Alex and I slowly sip our grappa, the sweet flavor mixing with the potent kick, while also savoring the rich mocha of our cake and enjoying each other’s company. Looking at our watches, we realize we’ve been in the restaurant for four hours, just talking and appreciating the experience of good food and drink. It’s almost as if we’ve gone on a life-changing getaway together, and in a way we have, as I don’t think we’ll ever look at food the same again.
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