In the heart of Mohegan Sun’s Casino of the Earth, new kid on the block Ballo’s sprawling, exuberant scale may appear to be as over the top as any Vegas establishment, but is a perfect example of big things coming in big packages. This is a quality that restaurant maverick John J. Tunney III, owner of Ballo, emphasizes in his cuisine and brainchild. At a press lunch this afternoon, we got a chance to experience Ballo’s menu and see the newly finished restaurant in the flesh.
As we tour the restaurant, the boyish Mr. Tunney points out in a flustered, yet noticeably pleased manner, the pieces of the restaurant that were recently finished yet appear as though they took months to create. The name of the restaurant spelled out in carved metal on the floor. The slender decorative touches on the Corinthian columns. All small details that make a big splash in the atmosphere of Ballo.
High-profile customers can have their library lounges and butler doors if they so choose, complete with hired security, yet with the option to hang out at the bar or dance in the back as well. A middle coffeehouse-style area has comfortably zany zebra print chairs and candlelit tables for close contact and a comforting oasis from the bustle of the casino. No one room feels staid or added on at the last minute. Each area presents its own set of unique possibilities for customizing your dining experience.
We washed these down with a selection of drinks, including Ballo’s signature cocktail, the Ballo Limonata, a delicately spritzed mixture of limonata, Spirit Vodka, and a frozen blood orange sphere. Refreshing and quenching with a neat twist on ice cubes and less dilution.
Later, we retreated to the rear, to a back room that makes a fine case for coming back, with integrated speakers and Renaissance curtained DJ area. A little dark in the afternoon, but not cavernous. This area was where we ate our meal, a special tasting menu presented by executive chef Matthew Adler and chef de cuisine Shaun Golan.
I started off dinner with a quartino of the house red, a tangy Cabernet Sauvignon. Ballo serves wine in 8 oz. quartinos, a pleasant and generous portion compared to the standard 5 oz. restaurant pour and priced like a typical glass. This is poured in 2 oz. portions from an individual pitcher that prevents the likely dribbling that comes with great, galumphing glasses of wine. With this, I was able to replenish as I pleased (though our server was so attentive there was no need to) and pace myself throughout the lunch. I enjoyed the cab. For a house wine, it was neither overly complex nor hiding poor quality under the house name. It is worth noting that Ballo boasts a wine list of over 60 wines, 16 of them offered by the quartino, and all of them Italian.
Bread was passed around along with the burrata, freshly baked Italian loaves hot from the oven. This was ripped off in healthy chunks, and served with a mixture of herbed garlic olive oil and butter. A traditional start to the meal and like the burrata, an excellent sponge for the leftover pesto. We followed this with another antipasti dish, crispy artichokes with arugula and lemon. These were lightly crispy on the outside and yielding on the inside, and small enough to pop in your mouth. If all my vegetables were prepared in this fashion, I’d likely be more inclined to go vegetarian. The artichokes were not breaded, and I suspect that as a result of this, did not sop up excess oil. Light and tender, the mild flavor of the artichokes was perked up by the addition of tart lemon juice and pickled scallions. More scallions and a hair more salt would have been preferred.
Following this was a dish of pork meatballs with broccoli rabe, ricotta salata, and marinara sauce. Our server said there was pancetta floating around in this somewhere, but any additional ingredient would have died an anonymous death, smothered in the rich marinara and savory cheese. Pancetta or not, these were delightfully nostalgic for all at the table, at least, those of us with marinara running through our veins. The meatballs erred toward the large side with an airy, moist texture and a rush of oregano and garlic. The sauce was equally bold with a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes and a smooth texture. Three of these sat in a miniature skillet. Believe me when I tell you that it took all of my restraint to not inhale each one.
The lunch took a slightly different turn after our trio of appetizers, and we were brought out a communal sweet sausage pizza to share amongst us. With a mozzarella and pecorino blend pooling in crannies left between strings of caramelized onion and chunks of pepperocini, this was a hearty yet controlled pie. With so many unctuous ingredients, one would expect something richer, sopping with oil and overspiced, but this seemed almost delicate. A meat lover’s special for the lady in Louboutins. It was sweet and fragrant, with a hearty crust and a light scattering of sausage.
It is worth noting that taking on a pizza project in Connecticut is as risky as taking on lobster in Maine or maple syrup in Vermont. While nothing could replace some of my beloved New Haven eateries, this was a worthy contender and offered up some creative deviation to the by-the-book apizza standard 50 miles west.
Our next dish was a small plate of fresh ravioli, the shell of which is housemade daily on premise, filled with mascarpone, ricotta, and parmesan, and covered in more tasty pesto. A tangy and comforting dish. However, the pasta shell was a little thick for its sweet, milky contents.
From that, we moved on to another pasta dish, a lusty tagliatelle doused in bechamel with chunks of proscuitto, and broiled with an end consistency of a savory toasted marshmallow. This achieved a nice bite to a normally saucy dish and added an additionally smoky note that the prosciutto certainly couldn’t have done on its own amongst all the cheese. The flavor was rich and the sauce a bit grainy, but flavorful. We found that the pasta held the sauce well and was cooked just a bit less than most mushy al dente offerings, with a firm structure.There was a brief rest in between the tagliatelle and this steak course, and a well-needed one to digest and chat amongst ourselves. When this came out, a hush descended over the self-proclaimed carnivores of the group as we tucked into a filet mignon with heirloom tomatoes, radicchio, arugula pesto, and a balsamic reduction. This was a steakhouse standard prepared with Italian accents. A great cut of steak, elevated even higher with a thick crust and a buttery, smooth cut, cooked medium rare and very moist. The steak knife was almost superfluous, and the steak was seasoned minimally, as all steaks should be. The fresh tomatoes were sweet, but somewhat excessive. The pesto was the only low point of this dish. This was now the third dish in our menu with pesto, and this manifested itself in a peppery, earthy version that dominated most of the flavors in the steak and vegetables if applied too liberally.
Our savory courses settled in our stomachs, we moved on to coffee and dessert, of which there was thankfully only one course. Illy coffee was served along with miniature cannoli with a double garnish of chopped pistachio nuts and dark chocolate chips, baked by resident chef-of-all-trades, Mr. Adler himself.
The cannoli, yet another Wooster Street facsimile treading dangerously close to its granddaddy, was a slimmer cigarillo-type pastry, lacking the bready, oily crust and choking globs of cheese that make its larger version so delectable. Still a sumptuous offering, with a spiced mascarpone filling and a crispy, wonton-like shell. A quiet, classic way to end the whole affair, as blended and solid as the artful quotes filling the walls, Thoreau interpretations by Tunney’s brother.
As our lunch wound down, Tunney lingered, not wanting the party to end and the music to die down. He chatted with us, cards were exchanged, and his smile fell a bit as we left. Tunney expounds upon his ideas as we walk out. “Everyone has a story,” Tunney tells us as we wait outside, not wanting to leave the splendor. “And we want to hear it.” Hear them he will. The man with the golden restaurant touch opens Ballo tomorrow to the public, ready to whirl Mohegan Sun visitors around the dance floor and delight the senses. Be there, or be square. This is one dance you won’t want to miss.