Almost a year ago, one member of a close circle of friends moved from a duplex on Woodlawn to a charming cottage on Del Rio Pike, about 20 miles south of Nashville.
The rest of us, committed inner-loopers, warned her of the possibly dire consequences of her geographic undesirability. “We’ll never see you again if you move all the way out there,” we said. “It’s such a long drive, and there’s nothing there.” One woman’s nothing is another woman’s paradise. For our friend, the countryside promised peace, quiet, and closer proximity to the horse she boards in Williamson County.
Our fears were only half true. We still see our friend, though less frequently than we did before and only if she drives into town. So it was on her birthday that some of her city buddies drove all the way out to Franklin to fete our friend on her special day at a restaurant on her home turf. As it turns out, we were well rewarded by finding a delightful common ground for future visits.
Antonio’s Ristorante Italiano, a block or so off Franklin’s charming Main Street, has been open for seven years in the same location on Fifth Avenue North. Two years ago, Annie and husband Frank Mariani arrived in town from upstate New York and began cooking there with then-owner Andy Markos. Annie has cooked all her life, though she never went to formal culinary school. But when she married an Italian, Annie spent a month in Chicago with Frank’s aunts Lina and Rose learning his family recipes, many of which are now on the restaurant’s menu.
In December 1997, Annie and Frank bought Antonio’s from Markos and are still in the process of making the place their own. The small dining room is welcoming and cozy, despite the tad-too-bright lighting and rather institutional tables and chairs. With my back to the room, I was looking right into the open kitchen that occupies an entire back wall. A high counter prevents much more than a chest-up view of Annie and her crew, but it’s still a good show. Annie says at first she was self-conscious, but now hardly notices anything but the task at hand. In fact, she says the arrangement makes it seem as if her customers are eating in her very own kitchen, an ambiance further enhanced by the ease with which regular customers lean over the counter to chat and see what’s cooking. You half expect Annie to stick a spoon in a pot and offer a taste.
Though some prep work is done prior to the restaurant’s daily opening at 5 p.m., what you see is what you’ll get when it eventually makes its way to your table. Everything is made fresh daily, like the superb pomodoro (tomato) sauce, which accompanies many of the dishes. If I could choose just one of the five starters available, it would be the eggplant sorentinothinly sliced pieces of eggplant rolled around a blend of ricotta, Parmesan, Romano, and cream cheeses, some fresh dill, then baked and topped with the pomodoro sauce. It was heavenly.
The spinach, egg, and tomato cheese-stuffed tortellini was topped with creamy Alfredo sauce. It’s a heavy appetizer perfect for sharing, or substantial enough for an entrée teamed with the house or other salad. For seafood lovers, a dozen or more mussels are steamed and served in a garlicky tomato sauce, which provides irresistible sopping opportunities, though the soft Italian bread, brought heated to the table, was a disappointment. (I prefer a crustier, more rustic bread.) Italian sausage grilled with sliced onions and green, red, and yellow peppers was pretty, though the sausage was a little spicy for a starter, potentially overloading the tastebuds for more subtly flavored entrées.
Crispy mixed-green salads with a creamy house dressing come with all entrées. Any entrée other than pasta will be accompanied by either a small side of pasta or the vegetable of the day. Your main course might be a bowl of pasta tossed with one of several choices (only the ziti is baked), chicken, veal, seafood, or Antonio’s specialties. We sampled just one pastathe linguini con pesto alla Genovesebut picked a winner. Unlike many pestos which are food-processed into a thick paste, Annie’s pesto was a burst of individual flavors of basil, pine nuts, garlic, and romano cheese. It ranks among the best and freshest I’ve had.
Two classic Italian styles of cooking veal cutlets or thinly pounded chicken breastsMarsala or piccatawere perfectly executed at Antonio’s. In both cases the veal or chicken is dredged in flour, then sautéed in butter. Marsala refers to the wine (produced in Sicily) that is added, along with sliced mushrooms and cream. Scallopine piccata is flavored with lemon and white wine.
Garlic, lemon, butter, and white wine also form the sauce for the popular scampi, which stars jumbo sautéed shrimp. Ours were a trifle tough thanks to a wee bit of over-cooking, but not inedibly so. The entire staff at Antonio’s was so accommodatingeven exchanging one veal dish we mistakenly ordered for anotherthat I’m certain we would have gotten a replacement if we had asked.
The rosemary-infused lamb chops pinwheeled on a plate with a lemon butter sauce were fantastic, as was the tender grilled filet with a tangy gorgonzola sauce.
You might plan your visit to Antonio’s on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, when Annie bakes one-pound lobster tails with Italian seasonings, lemon, and butter. These are occasionally also available on weekends, though I’d bet they go fast.
A short wine list offers several Italian vintageswe were very happy with both Chiantis we sampledas well as some American selections. Sorbet or spumoni provide a sweet and light finish to the meal, or you can indulge in the heavier cakes and pastries presented on a dessert tray, though they are not cooked on the premises.
One of the most common complaints I hear as a food critic is that you just can’t get good Italian food in Nashville. I don’t necessarily agreeboth Taste of Italy and Solé Mio offer consistently excellent Italian fare. If you’re willing to venture out of your inner-county comfort zone, Annie Mariani promises to cook something you will love.