There is something about the sauce at Antonetta's that grabbed me right from the first bite of the slow braised pork ($6). The pork was cooked in the house red sauce and the combination led to a fantastically simple dish with a surprising amount of depth. That's not to say that I had low expectations coming in; having eaten the tasty meatballs at chef-owner Matt Petrillo's Meatball Truck at Food Truck Rodeos in the past, I had an idea about what I was getting into. What did surprise me was how much of a chameleon that red sauce turned out to be.
The pork dish probably brought the most balanced version to the table with the sharpness of the sauce tamed by the meat juices, having been cooked down to a richer consistency. As for which red sauce dish was my favorite, there was a race between the tripe and oxtail appetizer ($7) and the eggplant parmesan ($10). The flavor and consistency of the sauce was completely different in each but complemented the style of the dish in both cases. The sauce around the tender honeycomb tripe and oxtail became thicker and much mellower after being cooked with the bits of offal. Yes, it did carry a touch of that "barnyard" aroma, as Andrew Zimmern coined it, but the gelatin and fat from the oxtail gave the sauce an irresistible meaty body.
In contrast, the eggplant parmesan had the unadulterated version covering the perfectly fried aubergine circles. What also impressed was the around half-inch-thick slices of eggplant that just crossed into being tender without overcooking. So many times the eggplant can just melt into the fried coating and become non-descript, but thankfully these were executed well. The chicken parmesan ($11) had a similar formulation but the eggplant was better seasoned and just worked better on the plate.
I think that is the biggest takeaway from Antonetta's as a whole: solid execution of classics with just a hint of modernization. The Italian American menu doesn't shy away from the massive portions that have made it popular with its regulars and it remains grounded in the past. Edges like panko breadcrumbs used for breading and rotating seasonal specials on the glass board help to bring some newness to the table. A good example was the cavatelli special ($15) that featured a dense handmade pasta highlighted by an oily, fresh vegetal sauce, briny olives and a beet powder dusting.
I consistently enjoyed the seasoning level on the dishes, and the greens and beans ($6) was no different. Sure, this was on the salty side of the scale but the escarole and cannellini beans met the textbook definition of the dish. Sausage brought the meatiness and the greens and beans were just above completely falling apart. My dining partner and I adored this and wiped up every last drop of the sauce. Speaking of the sausage, I was also impressed when it was served as a stewed link over the housemade gnocchi ($13). The gnocchi had a slight density to them and carried the sauce well.
Fried calamari capone ($12) was one of the only missteps during our meals at Antonetta's. The poppy seed studded creamy sauce was too sweet for the squid pieces and the only bites that worked were the ones with banana pepper or olive.
One part of the meals that had basically no criticism were the two desserts we sampled. Peanut butter creme brulee ($6) was smooth on the inside, crunchy on the outside and chock full of nutty goodness. This elicited groans at the table and it made for a fascinating dipping sauce for the fried dough slices as well. I really enjoyed the creme brulee but those cinnamon sugar and icing covered pieces of dough were perfect both by themselves and as a vehicle for the peanut butter pudding portion.
Along with the majority of the menu, the decor is rooted in the past as well, with photos of Sinatra dotting the wood paneling and plastic table covers adorning the classic tables. What it lacks in slick modern touches, it makes up for in homey charm. And speaking of charm, on the second visit, my friend and I had the pleasure of being served by one of the dedicated waitresses who has called Antonetta's home since long before the recent owner transition. She was attentive despite a crowded dining room and brought the sass to us young-ish fellows throughout our meal in the best possible way.
As I mentioned before, Chef Petrillo is the force behind The Meatball Truck. If you find yourself at Antonetta's for lunch you can give those same balls a try alongside some Flour City Bread and ricotta cheese. Whether on the truck or on the plate, the tender balls of meat are worth seeking out.
You can read more from Chris Lindstrom or listen to his podcast on his food blog, foodabouttown.com. Share any dining tips with him on Twitter and Instagram @stromie.