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Published June 08. 2011 05:00PM

A cozy atmosphere combined with delicious food makes eating at Emeril Lagasse's newest restaurant a delightful experience.

"It's a little casual a little approachable," the world-famous chef said last week at a press preview luncheon.

While the restaurant opened to the public on Saturday, members of the media on Thursday were personally welcomed by the chef to sample the fare at his latest endeavor. Emeril's Italian Table is the third restaurant Lagasse has opened at The Sands Casino in Bethlehem. Emeril's Chop House, an upscale steakhouse, opened in May of 2009. Another restaurant, Emeril's Burgers And More (BAM) opened in November that same year.

Each endeavor has the chef's personal touch and attention to detail.

When guests enter Emeril's Italian Table, they first come upon a full service bar, featuring a large selection of wine, which is likely to expand as more local vintages are added.

Beyond the bar is a wood-burning brick oven. The aroma of fresh baked pizza blends with the fragrance of cured meats set up on the antipasto bar.

In the cozy dining room, waiters, outfitted in matching dark, striped shirts and black aprons, passed trays of gourmet pizza.

The Fresh Tomato pie was a delicious combination of sliced tomatoes, olive oil, arugula, basil and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The Funghi pizza featured roasted local mushrooms, thin slices of potato, a sprinkling of truffle oil and a smattering of herbs, while the Clam pizza offered chunks of chopped clams, garlic, broccoli rabe and ricotta cheese.

Bob DeSalvio, president of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, who spoke before presenting Lagasse, explained that plans with the chef began in June of 2008 for three restaurants at The Sands in Bethlehem.

He said an Italian restaurant was something both parties were interested in pursuing.

"He was dying to do it, and we were dying to do it," said DeSalvio.

Unlike Emeril's Chop House, which has a cityfied, sophisticated atmosphere, the ambience of Emeril's Italian Table is warm and cozy.

While Lagasse stresses the importance of serving fresh, local fare from farm to fork in all of his local restaurants, the chef has taken the same approach with the design of his latest offering, which was created by Floss Barber of Philadelphia.

The decor is decidedly Tuscan, but with traces of the Lehigh Valley woven throughout. Warm rusts, golds and greens speak of Italy, while the heavy curved beams, milled from an old nearby barn, add rustic charm to the canted wood ceiling.

The stone walls and columns throughout the restaurant are hand crafted from local stone, giving the effect of dining in a private home, rather than in a restaurant in the middle of a bustling casino.

This may be exactly the feeling Emeril wishes to impart.

Wanting to open an Italian restaurant for more than 20 years, Lagasse says he loves Italian cuisine, and it is the type of food he is most likely to make when he entertains friends and family in his own home, and what he is most likely to make for himself after a long day. It is his comfort food.

The simplicity of the cuisine and the ingredients is what he says he loves the most. From the local ingredients to the selection of local materials for the decor, the end result is one of simplicity and authenticity.

"That's very important to us," said Lagasse. "I hope you feel that."

When asked why it took so long for him to open an Italian restaurant, the chef said he didn't know. He said he is also often asked why in the Lehigh Valley, and not in New York?

"I must get 30 opportunities every month to open restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia," he said. "I'm perfectly happy in the Lehigh Valley. It's agriculturally enriched, and the people are pretty damn nice."

Lagasse, whose roots are a mix of Portuguese and French-Canadian, said the menu is simple and includes a few family recipes. He also said it is not specific to any particular region of Italy, but from "all over the board," and is more reflective of his memories of being in the country.

He said it took three months to perfect the recipe for the luncheon's main course Homemade Meatballs. Lagasse would not share the recipe, but his executive chef, Tony Page, admitted they were kicked up a notch with a dash of chili flakes and porcini mushroom powder.

While Lagasse said he wished he could serve the gathering 55 courses, the menu for the day included just three.

The first course served, an Italian Chop Salad, was delicious. Chick peas, roasted peppers, salami and olives, topped with a chiffonade of fresh basil and a splash of tangy vinaigrette more than made up for typically less-than-flavorful iceberg lettuce, which provided a nice crunch.

The Homemade Meatballs were next. Lightly tossed in a red sauce and served on a bed of creamy polenta, they were topped with arugula and a sprinkling of ricotta salata. The polenta was a nice alternative to pasta. The meatballs were tasty, substantial and filling, and could easily rival anyone's Italian grandmother's for best of the best.

Lagasse said his choice of meatballs as the main course was questioned by his staff, but he said he knew what he was doing.

"I know this group," he said, referring to the 60-plus reporters and foodies who eagerly partook of Thursday's repast. "I knew they would appreciate it."

Lagasse's third course was a Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Torte with an Espresso Anglaise. Rich and chewy like a brownie, but with a gooey chocolate center, the torte featured a sprinkling of glazed and toasted chopped hazelnuts.

Prices are about average for the Lehigh Valley, with the highest price on the menu at $29 for a grilled N.Y. strip steak with arugula and roasted potatoes; but are generally under $20.

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (484) 777-7777.

The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem is located at 77 Sands Blvd. in Bethlehem.

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