At 77 years old, John Varalli still seizes business opportunities, especially when it comes to Scannicchio’s, his beloved Italian restaurant.
So when a friend called and asked Varalli to cook at his newly renovated bar, Lefty’s Pub and Grub, Varalli didn’t think twice.
He partnered with the owner, and in late spring began serving the old-style Italian cuisine that made him popular among A.C. locals and visitors for nearly four decades, when he had the original Scannicchio’s in Atlantic City.
The 2009 recession, however, shut down the eatery and a slew of other businesses.
But it’s a new day and a new dawn in Atlantic City. So Varalli is bringing his talents back to the city that made his restaurant a household name.
The atmosphere at Lefty’s is intimate — only 11 tables are in the bar — seating around 40 people. But the owner plans to expand the space into a full-scale restaurant and catering venue next year.
Varalli learned to cook from the chefs who worked in Scannicchio’s Atlantic City location. He also comes from a rich tradition of excellent cooks, says his son Christian, who runs Scannicchio’s in South Philly. Varalli’s parents hailed from the Calabria and Abruzzi regions in Italy, and Varalli mastered traditional Italian recipes passed down through generations.
The dishes at Scannicchio’s at Lefty’s are old-style, classic Italian: veal and chicken, along with pasta, seafood and steaks.
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But what makes them stand out are the fresh ingredients. “Fresh ingredients go a long way with flavor and eye appeal,” says Christian. “Taking the time with preparation and not rushing are also key.”
Everything is made fresh daily at Scannicchio’s at Lefty’s, including the tomato sauce, made from plump, flavorful San Marzano tomatoes; and the meatballs, made with pork, beef and veal. The Varallis use local, trusted purveyors for produce and meats, so that everything is guaranteed to be fresh.
The menu is fairly extensive for such a new venture, and prices are moderate.
Appetizers include steamed clams, ($12) made with fresh tomatoes, garlic and white wine. Ask for some Italian bread to sop up the juice, which is light and delicate. You also can order mussels, ($12) that come three different ways: white, red and fra diavolo.
Pan-fried long hots ($9) seared in olive oil and flavored with garlic and fresh tomatoes were an instant hit when the restaurant opened a few months ago, and they continue to be. So are the fried meatballs at $8.95.
“We can’t make enough of them (in the South Philly Scannicchio’s),” says Christian of the meatballs. “People just love them.”
A caprese salad appetizer, featuring Jersey-fresh tomatoes, is $10. Or you can enjoy traditional clams casino ($10) made with chopped bacon, pepper and onions.
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Entrees — which come with soup or salad and a side of pasta — include traditional veal dishes: veal piccata ($21.95) in a lemon caper white wine sauce; veal saltimbocca ($22.95) topped with prosciutto, sage, mozzarella and mushrooms in a Marsala wine and brown demi glace sauce; veal Franchese ($22.95), batter-dipped and served in a white wine sauce; and veal Milanese Italiano ($22.95) made with broccoli rabe, sharp provolone and roasted peppers.
The veal dishes are quite popular, says Christian. “A lot of people don’t make veal at home, and it can be very pricey at the meat market. People like to eat it when they go out.”
If you love seafood, you’ll enjoy the shrimp scampi ($20) made with lemon, white wine and garlic, served over pasta. You also can try the seafood Scannicchio ($25), which has clams, mussels, calamari, crabmeat, scallops and shrimp simmering in a red, white or fra diablo sauce, and served over linguine. If you just want pasta and clams ($20), you can have it in red, white or spicy red.
If you prefer salmon, Scannicchio’s offers fresh, mixed greens in a ginger dressing ($16); the dressing is made with extra virgin olive oil, a bit of balsamic vinegar to sweeten the taste and ginger. You can opt for fried calamari over spring mix, also in ginger dressing, for $14.
You can’t come to an Italian restaurant and not order pasta, especially at Scannicchio’s where the sauce is homemade daily. The penne alla vodka ($18.95) comes in a tomato cream sauce. Add chicken ($21.95), shrimp ($24.95) or crabmeat ($25.95) to enhance the flavor.
If you like red meat, sure, there’s a grilled New York strip ($25.95), but go big with the Big John ($28.95), a 10-ounce center cut strip, topped with shrimp, scallops and crabmeat in a white wine garlic sauce and melted mozzarella.
Looking to the future, Varalli is excited, says Christian. In fact, “this is the most excited I’ve seen him in a long time. My father takes a lot of pride in the restaurant he built over the years.”
So much pride that Varalli actually goes by the name Johnny Scannicchio. In more ways than one, he has become the restaurant he loves so much.