Ballo Italian Restaurant and Social Club, Uncasville
You’re wandering in a neon-lit forest of clanging slot machines past a noble wolf atop a faux mountain. You come upon an ancient abbey built of tawny brick, stone and marble the color of the Tuscan hills. It reminds you of a mysterious ruin you once visited on a whirlwind tour of Italy. It should, because what you are looking at was inspired by the magnificent 12th-century Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano near Siena.
You’re not in Italy, of course, you’re in Connecticut, at Ballo Italian Restaurant and Social Club at the Mohegan Sun Casino. There are Gothic arches and Corinthian columns. There are bellinis and Siena slings. There’s calamari fritti and arrancini, fennel salad, and veal with figs and goat cheese polenta. And a choice of soaring spaces, alcoves, small rooms and large rooms in which to dine and imbibe—and dance.
A casual 114-seat café opens onto the casino floor. The lounge is hip and inviting with plushy couches and generous wing chairs upholstered with faux zebra skin. There are two bars, both high, wide and hang-outable. Polished surfaces everywhere beg to be danced on—and here’s the kicker, on Friday and Saturday nights you can do just that.
The dining room, with a 900-meal-a-night capability, is supremely comfortable. With oversize tables and huge booths seating six or eight. Early evening is family time. Dates come a little later. And dancing fools arrive late, late, late, when the deejay gets here at 11 and tables are pushed aside to create a dance floor. Rumor has it that upon occasion in the wee hours go-go girls dance beween the arches.
That we have yet to see since we arrive on the early side to assess the food.
The menu is classic Italian, meticulously curated to focus on the best rendition of each traditional dish, with no also-rans or shock-appeal silliness. Even the cocktails are Italian. From a traditional Bellini (prosecco and peach) to Ballo’s signature limonata (“la vodka originale Italiana” and blood orange).
With lots of categories to cover—salumi, formaggi, antipasti, insalate, pizza, pasta, secondi, contorni, dolce—we’re going to need a lot of small plates for tasting.
Everybody’s doing it and Ballo is set up for it with an endless supply. When we order an appetizer of ricotta gnocchi to share, it arrives sizzling hot and generously portioned out in diminutive oval baking dishes, plenty for all. Good thing because these gnocchi, made in-house, are no mushy balls of fluff. Gently al dente with a satisfying mouth feel and filmed with a rich sauce flavored with guanciale, they’re as close to perfection as I’ve had.
Arancini, too, are exemplary. Expertly fried, the crispy balls of rice are creamy inside, scented with saffron, and blessed with a nice, clean fresh tomato sauce.
But no culinary road trip is without a few bumps. “Classic Caesar, croutons, parmigiano,” to our horror, is total flop. A small, shallow bowl of cut, not torn, romaine hides two (count ’em) croutons and is topped with five (count ’em) inch-wide shavings of Parmesan cheese. Dressing? Not much, and tasting only of garlic. If Caesar Cardini were alive, he would sue for defamation.
We, however, carry on and are rewarded with an irresistible appetizer of tiny, tender hearts of baby artichoke fried to unbelievable crispiness. Instant addiction. Forget potato chips. Forget popcorn. Pass the artichoke crisps.
Our luck holds when it comes to entrées. Striped bass wins the prize. Perfectly cooked, it flakes away from the fork in silky white slices. Wisely, it’s presented virtually unembellished on a bed of couscous.
Equally impressive is veal porterhouse, a regal cut of high-quality meat served on the bone, with fig and goat cheese polenta. A dish fit for a king—or an emperor of Imperial Rome.
At Ballo, even a lowly cut of beef like skirt steak gets royal treatment, spiced, marinated and enrobed in a luscious wine-dark sauce with a pile of fregula to sop it up. Cipolline and asparagus complete the entourage.
You can’t eat Italian without sampling the pizza. Ballo has a dozen on offer. We choose one with prosciutto, ricotta, caramelized onion and balsamic, a combination that tastes even better than it sounds. But we have dined so lavishly, we take a third of it home—dolce beckons.
The cannoli, crisp and crunchy as cookies, are filled with vanilla ricotta studded with chocolate chips. Strawberry balsamic gelato is refreshing, and hazelnut gelato reminds me of midnight meandering in Milan. Cheesecake topped with poached blueberries is too sweet for my taste. But I fall completely in love with affogato, which is more of a drink than a dessert, although it begins with a dollop of vanilla gelato in a parfait glass. At the table, hot espresso and sweet vermouth are added, and everything melts and melds. Time to dance the night away.
Ballo Italian Restaurant and Social Club
Mohegan Sun Resort & Casino, Uncasville, 860/862-1100, balloitalian.com
Lunch daily 12 to 4. Dinner Sunday through Thurs-day 4 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Late-night menu Friday and Saturday till 1. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $11 to $28, entrées $20 to $44, desserts $8 to $10.