When I went to Tuscany on my honeymoon, I could not resist gnocchi. So when I ventured to Antonia's in Hillsborough, I looked forward to ordering it. Since I was told the pasta is made fresh, I guessed the potato dumplings would be as well, and there's nothing quite like freshly made Italian starchy goodness.
Alas, gnocchi was not on the menu. I learned from Claudia Salvadore, one of Antonia's three owners, that it usually runs as a special. She wandered the tables of the restaurant, which was packed even on a weeknight, gently inquiring about the food, the drink, the evening, her Italian accent only lending to the authenticity of the meal.
So many Italian restaurants fail by not knowing when to stop—stop ladling the gravy, crushing the garlic, pouring the cream. But Antonia's honors the practices of the old country, treading lightly where many Americanized versions stomp. The menu might not have taken many risks, but what it did it did well, using local and seasonal ingredients, the standard practice in Italy.
Antonia's opened in March 2011 at the corner of King and Churton streets in the former Tupelo's space, the central intersection of downtown Hillsborough. As Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and part-time Hillsborough resident, has written on her blog, it is her "neighborhood ristorante." There is live music some nights, and if you dine out frequently enough with people you see regularly, you might not mind the volume. Otherwise, dine outdoors, al fresco.
Pasta was the star of the evening, for there is no better way to gauge the quality of an Italian restaurant than how it serves a dish as simple as flour and egg topped with sauce. Though many seafood dishes looked appetizing, particularly the swordfish, I could not bring myself to stray from the comforts of fettuccine and tortelloni—and narrowing it down to these seemed a sacrifice.
A note on the word fettuccine. When someone Italian says this word, it sounds like the way the noodle should taste and feel in your mouth: soft yet firm. The thicker, flat noodle makes for a heartier bite, though it remains tender.
The fettuccine al ragú and the fettuccine alla Antonia (both $13.50, with half portions available for half the price plus $2) did not disappoint. The ragú tasted suspiciously like a bolognese, bearing a richness that went beyond a traditional meat sauce. The Antonia iteration, the restaurant's signature dish, came with a cream sauce plus peas, mushrooms and parmesan. It was well balanced, also rich but not overly so, as many cream sauces can be. It seemed as smart a choice on a warm summer night as would a lighter, olive oil-based sauce.
In lieu of the gnocchi, I ordered tortelloni alla Contadina ($16.50) off the daily dinner menu. It came with Italian smoked pancetta, button and shitake mushrooms, garlic and parmeggiano Reggiano. Cheesey, bacony goodness was met with every bite, and again it was not too heavy. Though I wish it had a bit more sauce, it was entirely satisfying.
Before you think I ate nothing but pasta, let me backtrack to the appetizers. In the spirit of summer, what were essentially two antipasto platters—the antipasto misto ($10.75) and the verdure alla griglia con mozzarella ($9.75)—seemed the best options, because aside from pasta, an assortment of meats, cheeses and roasted and pickled veggies is another way to gauge the merit of an Italian eatery.
The vegetables were not overly marinated, the asparagus thin and the eggplant supple. The meats were perfectly fatty, the cheese intense and rich. However, there was only one small, single roasted tomato between the two platters. Considering that at Antonia's the mozzarella is made in-house, this was nothing short of a tragedy. The mozzarella, I am sure, considered this a grave injustice. I reluctantly shared the solo tomato with my companion.
A lone criticism: The server, though polite, should have been better informed about the food. When asked what cheeses were included in the antipasto, she was unable to say with certainty which was which, and many of them, though delicious, looked alike.
As for dessert, I was pleased to see tiramisu on the menu. Italians are not known for their desserts, and this is among the richest the country has to offer. Often the lady fingers are overly soaked in espresso, making for a cold and soggy mouthful, but here the dessert was artfully crafted with the right amount of moisture, allowing the indulgence of the marscapone cream topped with cocoa to really shine. The panna cotta was pleasant but unremarkable.
Luckily, the food at Antonia's was not nearly as complicated as the history of the restaurant. When Claudia acknowledged there were three owners in cahoots, that there had been an Antonia's in another state a long time ago, she shook her head and smiled, more for herself than for me. The 30-plus years of experience in the food business shows. You can taste it.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Under the Hillsborough sun."