Friday, February 26, 2010

Taking a risk at Antonio’s Restaurant

In every occupation, there are some limitations that you need to know about. If your career takes you into the wild, you might need to know if you are allergic to any of the animals you might encounter. For a painter, an allergy to certain pigments could be a problem.

My Achilles' heel as a food writer is that Italian tomato sauce (or red gravy) always makes me sick.  Whether it is because of high acidity or combining it with cheese, it never fails, I spend the early morning hours kneeling to the porcelain god, swearing to the tile floor in my bathroom that I will never eat Italian food again, cross my heart and hope to die.

Making this kind of promise is highly problematic because I adore pizza (red sauce and all) and I love Italian cuisine.  What’s a girl to do?  On very rare occasions, I get lucky.  I find an Italian place or pizza joint that plays nice with my belly and the only conclusion I can make from this mystery is that they offer a “quality” red sauce.

What do I mean by this?  To me, a basic, “quality” red sauce consists of fresh tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic and basil.  I’ve made red sauce at home and have never experienced gastrointestinal distress from my own creations.  Quite often I’ve substituted canned tomatoes for fresh with the same, delicious result.  So why have I so frequently experienced this pain when dining out?

With a little online research I discovered that fast food pizza joints will add horrible things like MSG or citric acid to the cheapest tomato sauce they can get their hands on.  It also worries me that formal restaurants who should be using fresh ingredients really aren’t!

Perhaps it makes me naive to believe most restaurants should be using quality produce but all I can really do is tread carefully in the realm of Italian sauces and be discriminating when selecting a restaurant.  Last night, I decided to brave a fairly new Italian restaurant on Maple Street called Antonio’s.  This is my 26th cheat and, to my dismay, I weighed the same.  I am still only down 51 pounds.

Antonio’s Restaurant moved from the West Bank to Maple Street in the Riverbend in August 2009, but the waitstaff, owner and chef remain the same, as well as a pretty extensive wine list.  John and I were rather comforted by the décor that featured rich, burnt orange painted walls, elegant art and warm, low lighting.  The dining room featured sturdy wood tables and chairs that made dining (and lounging) quite comfortable.

Our server immediately brought some warm, rosemary-scented bread to the table with a small dipping plate of olive oil.  The bread was savory and delightful while the oil was flavored with red pepper flakes and sun dried tomatoes.

For an appetizer, we ordered the Fried Calamari (spelled calamary on the menu) as a little test.  Is it just me or does EVERY Italian restaurant feature fried calamari?  Anyhow, I find that ordering this fairly simple appetizer tends to give me an idea of how good the rest of the meal will be.  Antonio’s passed my test with flying colors. The fish was tender and the batter was crunchy and not too oily with just a little bit of heat.  The calamari was served with a marinara dipping sauce that was neither too sweet nor too acidic, but just right.

I was excited when my Lasagna came out because I knew I would enjoy the sauce at the very least.  The meat, a combination of Italian sausage and lean ground beef, was spiced well and tasty.  The Lasagna had several cheeses I don’t associate with authentic lasagna (cheddar, provolone and Swiss as well as the usual ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella) but the dish was still quite enjoyable nonetheless.

John selected the Linguine Mediterraneo featuring large pieces of shrimp, artichoke hearts, black olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese in their “special” garlic sauce.  My taste of his dish proved to be very fresh and flavorful with a nice tang from the artichokes.

Although we couldn’t finish our entrees, I was still raring for dessert and selected a Chocolate Lava Cake with vanilla ice cream.  The cake came out hot with a large scoop of ice cream smothered in chocolate syrup.  Usually, John won’t help me eat most of the desserts, but this time he finished it off!

The best part of this story is that last night I slept like a baby and felt terrific this morning when I woke up!  No tummy problems, not even a hint of indigestion, arose to haunt me and I knew I had found another Italian gem. It was obvious that, like myself, Antonio’s values the use of fresh ingredients, soothing my stomach and making me a happy diner. For that, I can’t help but say “Grazie!”

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