Antonia's begins to cast its spell before you even set foot inside the place. Poppy-red umbrellas in front of the restaurant beckon as you approach, inviting you to step from the streets of the pre-Revolutionary era town of Hillsborough, where Antonia's opened in March, and into a European sidewalk café.
Indoors, dining room manager Claudia Salvadore's urbane, softly accented greeting keeps the magic alive. Behind her, a well-stocked bar divides the space into two narrow, cozy rooms framed in vintage molded tin ceilings, time-burnished hardwood floors and windows hung with curtains in muted shades of olive, rust and cream. Walls hung with an eclectic collection of art ranging from Miro print to Romantic landscape reinforce a mood that is at once refined and relaxed.
Though the restaurant has only been open for five months, it feels as if it's been around for decades - and in a way, it has. Salvadore helped run a previous incarnation of Antonia's with childhood friend Antonia Berto and Berto's husband, Phillip Smith in Key West for 24 years before selling it in 2002. Joining the trio in the new venture is Naomi Lundahl, whom they had met when she was co-owner of another Key West restaurant.
Berto and Smith team up in the kitchen to offer an enticing mix of traditional and contemporary fare with a Northern Italian accent and an emphasis on local and sustainable ingredients. The starter offering is brief but varied, with temptations including an antipasto misto of salumi and local artisanal cheeses, a pairing of prosciutto with the current crop of cantaloupe and honeydew melon, and mushroom caps sautéed in a voluptuous Marsala cream sauce.
Decisions don't get any easier when it comes to entrees. Do you go for the pan-seared Gulf snapper with watercress, Belgian endive, radicchio, arugula and artichokes, splashed with white wine and oil infused with roasted olives and lemon? Or scaloppine of pork loin stuffed with wild mushrooms and creamy caciotta cheese, napped with a pancetta-sage butter sauce?
Further complicating matters are the pastas, which range from fettuccine, mushrooms and peas in a velvety cream sauce to penne with seasonal vegetables to spaghetti with shrimp in a vibrant tomato sauce punctuated with garlic and red pepper. Happily, pastas are available in half portions, allowing you to have your pasta, so to speak, and eat your entree too.
Unless you opt for the lasagne bolognese, that is, in which case you'll want to order the full portion and forgo the entree. It's that good. Unlike the familiar Southern Italian version of the dish, Antonia's is the Emilia-Romagna classic layering of béchamel, rich bolognese ragu and homemade pasta so tender that it's impossible to describe without resorting to the melts-in-your-mouth cliché.
Homemade pastas are Antonia Berto's specialty, it turns out, and you'll invariably find at least one among the list of nightly specials. Linguine alla spiaggia was a recent charmer, featuring shrimp, crab and tomato entwined in a skein of delicate noodles tossed in a light sherry cream sauce.
From local sources
But pasta is hardly the only attraction on the specials list, where Berto and Smith frequently venture outside the Italian repertoire to showcase local flavors. The catch of the day might be pan-seared North Carolina flounder, catfish or grouper, with your choice of sauce judiciously applied so as not to upstage the fish. That even goes for the anchovy cream sauce, a model of restraint and balance.
A bounty of crabs is transformed into crab cakes, ample disks of jumbo lumps held together by little more than their lacy crusts. Land and sea harvests are united on crunchy crostini, where snapper, mussels, shrimp, heirloom tomatoes and cannellini beans cast a spell that compels you to eat every bite.
Nor does the charm wear off when it comes time for dessert. Torta di amaretto e cocco is a magic incantation that conjures up almonds and toasted coconut in a light-as-a-cloud cream cake. Nutella crème brûlée, a sometime special, bewitches. And it should come as no surprise, given the owners' backgrounds, that key lime pie transports you instantaneously to Key West.