Published January 26. 2012 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:59AM
At Ballo Restaurant and Social Club, the newest of the four restaurants the Mohegan Sun classifies as "gourmet," there is so much people-watching as the betting public walks past, so many rainbow lights just beyond, and such a low, dull roar of activity, you and your dinner companions can just drink it all in and hold the conversation for later.
On the periphery of the neon galaxy of the Earth Casino, Ballo is as cool as a moonscape but not at all barren. The aim of restaurateur John L. Tunney III seems to be to create a sanctuary for everyone from foodies to hip-hop clubbers to folks who just want to grab a pizza.
Vaulted arches soar from replicated 12th-century columns, some in the putty color of ecclesiastical architecture and others in racy red. The back area, farthest from the slots floor, is the social club. On Friday and Saturday nights, it turns into a mostly hip-hop dance club but can also be booked for private parties, as we were told it was on the night we went. Late at night, it becomes the thing to dance on the tables.
Meanwhile, Ballo lives up to its gourmet classification with a classic five-course Italian menu and impeccable service.
On our visit, the appetizers got the meal off to a stunning start. The calamari was as light and crisp as we've ever had and perfectly tender. It came with marinara sauce that ran out before we had given every little ring a dip.
But no matter, because the other appetizer we chose was the arancini - golf ball-sized fritters of saffron risotto that came with more of the same aromatic sauce. The arancini were fried crisp on the outside and meltingly good inside.
A foot-long loaf of crispy Italian bread imported daily from Long Island arrived at the table in its white bakery bag. It was very nearly as good as the crispy bread from a certain family bakery in Norwich.
The two salads kept up the standards set by the first course. A salad of arugula, shaved Parmigiana and pignoli was even better than advertised because of the infant greens and the richly toasted pine nuts. The beets, mint and mozzarella salad (think of a riff on the ubiquitous Caprese salad that assumes a winter beet is better than a winter tomato) could have coasted on either the tender beets or the dulce mozzarella but didn't need to because the combination harmonized beautifully.
By then, hospitably coddled by our excellent wait-team, we expected nothing less from the entrees. Surprisingly, both were in fact a bit ... less.
Ballo's menu says its pasta is homemade, and it surely is handsome. Chitarra - square-edged spaghetti - lobster carbonara was beautifully al dente. The chitarra comes closely coated with the sauce of egg but a little too much cheese. Carbonara is meant to be rich, and lobster should gild the lily, but it's always a risk that the tendersweet lobster taste can be lost to the cheese, egg and smoky-salty bacon. That's what happened here.
The restaurant's signature "Scallop and Scampi" offers two jumbo shrimp - with a deferential warning that they still have their heads on - and sea scallops over a cushion of black lentils, diced sopressata and spinach.
The buttery scallops were succulent, tender and seasoned just right, and the shrimp were nearly as delectable. (Heads shouldn't be an issue; if they are, don't eat such critters.) But I am a sucker for the creative combinations chefs devise to augment the fairly straightforward protein item in any entree - be it a chop, a filet or a scallop. I am interested in the underpinnings.
So I expected black lentils tarted up with the spicy sausage and the baby spinach either to put me in mind of a gumbo or surprise me with a whole new harmony of flavors. But although each ingredient was cooked to exactly the right bite and shade, the sum just wasn't any more than the parts.
At Ballo, the dessert list is recited from memory and includes an Italian-style milkshake, a chocolate lava cake, tiramisu, gelato and sorbet.
We decided lighter would be better and tasted a deeply chocolate gelato and a tangy blood-orange sorbet that could only have been better if we'd ordered a scoop of each in each dish. Mmmm. Dark chocolate and blood orange.
Ballo really does seem to aim to be all things to all patrons, so it would be easy to enjoy the scene for the price of a $12 pizza and a drink. But if you're there to see what the kitchen can do, be ready for the flourishes to add up to a meal as pricey as any of the area's more ambitious restaurants.
There is one difference, though, and it's easy to forget in these non-smoking days: Most of the restaurants in Connecticut and nearby states are smoke-free. The tribal casinos are the exception. Despite the technology used to clear the air at Mohegan Sun, Ballo is a casino restaurant, and it sits open-air to the casino floor. Smoke, alas, gets in your eyes.
Fun fact: The boxwood hedge separating the restaurant seating from the casino walkway is so rich and green that every other passerby seems to need to reach out and see if it's real. I'm not telling.