by Carrie Havranek; Photos by Laini Abraham
The Lehigh Valley—and the Northeast in general—is loaded with mom-and-pop Italian restaurants. It’s one of those things you can rely on, like pizza places and Chinese take-out joints in suburban strip malls. However, no place but the Lehigh Valley has Emeril’s Italian Table. This, my friends, is a good thing.
At a press event on Thursday, Emeril and the folks at the Sands Casino Resort hosted a small group of journalists for a luncheon previewing his restaurant, which opens Saturday, June 4 at 11am. We sampled the charcuterie, a few wood-fired pizzas rolled almost paper-thin, and were treated to a three-course meal. The pizzas are a must: I couldn’t get enough of the fresh tomato one, accented by arugula, basil and aged, sweet-sharp parmigano-reggiano cheese.
Believe it or not, it’s the first Italian eatery for the chef, who owns and operates more than a dozen restaurants across the U.S in Las Vegas, Miami Beach, Orlando, New Orleans (of course), including two others in Bethlehem. It made me giggle a bit to see all those big resort destinations on his web site and then Bethlehem; it suggests much about the Sands and its commitment to playing with the big guns in the casino world. He highlighted the benefits of situating his restaurants in the Lehigh Valley, which is “agriculturally enriched,” and noted that many of the items were locally sourced. In fact, one of the focal points of the interior design (rustic-meets-contemporary chic) is the reclaimed wood from an abandoned barn in the Lehigh Valley. (Look up. It’s those old, weathered beams. They didn’t have to do a thing to them, he said.) Architectural details aside, the menu celebrates what seems to be America’s favorite comfort food, rendered by a world-class chef-personality whose talents are far more considerable than a trademarked soundbite (Bam!) can simply permit. Lagasse addressed the crowd and took questions, but the main ideas he stressed were that the restaurant is about “simplicity and authenticity. Those are the most important things in what we do.”
You could find both qualities in the approachable yet extensive menu with approachable prices that will leave you enough money left over for some gaming. Main courses offer something for the more adventurous and those looking for something immediately recognizable. So you’ll find an Eberly Farms chicken roasted under a brick (aha! they totally get the rustic thing); rosemary grilled jumbo shrimp with a panzanella salad; and a roasted whole seasonal fish with truffle oil and watercress (double aha! the authentic thing, too). You’ll also encounter the likes of a New York strip steak with roasted potatoes, and standbys such as veal (or chicken) Parmesan. The entrees range from $17-$29, and the pasta offerings have some standards too: spaghetti carbonara, linguine with alfredo sauce. However, there’s also oreccheitte in a lamb ragu with fresh mint and penne with roasted eggplant, tomato, basil and mozzarella. All pastas are offered in both half and full-size portions and cost $9 and $17, respectively.
Sadly, we did not get to sample any of the housemade pasta, artisanal cheeses, or delicious looking antipasti on the menu (oven roasted mushrooms; salt-roasted beets; marinated peppers and olives, and the like.) We also did not sip any of the 200 wines available by the glass or the bottle from Italy and around the world (he says he’s “tasting” some Andretti wines. What about Clover Hill or others that are grown here?) There’s a warm, open cocktail/wine bar dedicated to lounging and noshing. Lagasse said, “I wish I could feed you 55 courses.” However, what we ate, we did enjoy.
We started our feast with an Italian chopped salad with iceberg, salami, cured olives, roasted red peppers, and chickpeas, all expertly dressed. Like many Americans, Lagasse grew up eating Italian food, and when asked, said that some of the menu items are family recipes. He admitted it took them three months to come up with a meatball recipe they (he and his culinary team of Chris Wilson and Tony Page) were satisfied with. “I don’t know . . . that’s just how we do things,” he said. One would expect such attention to detail from a chef of his caliber. This second course included meatballs. They were sizable and served—all three of them—atop a creamy puddle of polenta and topped with some sprigs of wild arugula, a crumbly dusting of ricotta salata, and a drizzle of a spicy tomato sauce. The meatballs were moist, flavorful; fennel and oregano were present. It was an imaginative way to present every Italian-American grandma’s specialty; you won’t find the ol’ spaghetti-and-meatballs thing here.
Dessert deserves special mention. I am perhaps an aberration in that I don’t go crazy for chocolate (it feels too obvious to me; I’m more interested in subtlety), but the dark chocolate hazelnut torte was just delicious. First, it was neatly split in half, poised for sharing, and at first blush, almost looked like a brownie. However, it’s easy to eat the entire thing yourself, as it’s not cloyingly sweet, owing no doubt to the quality of the chocolate used and the Nutella in the torte itself. The bottom crust was studded with ground hazelnuts, and the plate was dusted with the same. The plate was garnished with an espresso anglaise ready for you to dip pieces of the tart into, as coffee and chocolate are natural pairings, with one flavor intensifying the other. I was surprised, though, that we weren’t offered other items on the dessert menu, such as ricotta cheesecake, spumoni, or even panna cotta. (I suppose the assumption is that everyone likes chocolate?) These feel more Italian to me than dark chocolate per se. From one of our servers we heard that the cannoli were amazing, and I’d be curious to try the housemade gelatto and sorbetto in the future.
Lagasse promised the place wouldn’t turn into a chain, which was perhaps a subtle dig at the likes of Olive Garden, or his celeb-chef friends who have branded themselves with the same restaurant in multiple cities? Or perhaps it’s just an assurance that what we have here will remain singular yet not unfamiliar. After all, this is comfort food, at its heart. Upon leaving, Laini and I talked a bit more with him about the menu and what we ate, specifically. “It’s kind of like what you’d get at your grandma’s. Some salad, a little meatballs. . . .” He paused. “And some good chocolate dessert.” Taste for yourself.