He doesn't look like Matt Damon, but Tony DeFrancesco could teach the Talented Mr. Ripley a thing or two about playing multiple roles on a Tuesday night in a semi-full restaurant on the Ohio River, all while dodging the path of a mewing, schizophrenic cat in heat.
The night we shuffled into Tony's on the River after driving a half-hour for the pleasure of eating on the bank of the Ohio River, Tony was doing everything himself: waiting tables, bartending and, yes, cooking. A graduate of the London Culinary Institute who fell in love with a house on the river in New Richmond -- who knows our fate? -- he decided to bring home-cookin', backed by a European culinary education, to the good people on the far East Side.
Along with a menu that has vittles including Tony's family-recipe fried chicken ($12.99), slow-roasted baby-back ribs, wings and onion rings ($12.99) and Pork Melenesse ($12.99) dredged in panko, there are pleasant surprises like fresh pecan-coated grouper or snapper (whichever is available, $13.99) and wild Alaskan salmon.
But who cares about the menu? Where are our drinks? This is what we were thinking a good 15 minutes after ordering a cosmopolitan and Guinness from our charming waitress who wasn't yet 16. ("OK," she said, sighing. "But I'll have to have Tony carry them out, because I'm underage.")
Every time we asked our waitress for something, we felt guilty because she had to walk the long path from the house, where she had tables, to the edge of the river bank, where there were no diners but us and a conflicted stray cat who couldn't decide if she loved or hated us.
Lick, rub, hiss, bite -- she seemed to somehow capture the spirit of the evening. Next door, a shirtless neighbor who was tinkering in his yard played a lovely compilation of Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling," Toto's "Africa" and Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee."
My dining partner was acting a little loopy, especially after finally getting his Heineken.
"You probably think I forgot about you, but I didn't," our waitress said sincerely after we saw her moseying down the path again. "I just had a lot to do."
When we did get our drinks, they were absolutely lovely. Tony has a whole collection of martinis. Well, he has four, but they're enough. The Chocolate Martini ($5), the first one I tried, or rather downed, was like drinking Ghirardelli chocolate with a shot of creme de cacao and vodka. Quite frankly, it was better than anything I'd had lately.
Meanwhile, my partner was enjoying his Heineken ($3), thankful it wasn't "skunky." "A beer in a green bottle can get skunky," he observed. "I don't know if you knew that."
I did not. As soon as Tony brought our drinks out, he took our appetizer order. I couldn't decide and wanted him to help despite the fact that Tony was handling his many tasks with a contagious smile, so I asked him to bring us what he wanted us to eat.
Ten minutes later a beaming Tony arrived with various platters of sinful fried things: jalapeno poppers and fried mozzarella. And five minutes later a rack of ribs along with "cheesy cornbread." It was like a medieval feast.
So we were forced to eat fried and cheesy things. Oh no, not that!
About 10 minutes later we were stuffed when our entrées magically arrived, right on time. My pecan-coated grouper, lightly dipped in melted butter and pressed into crushed pecans, was crispy and heavenly nutty. The fish itself was a bit drier than usual but extremely fresh -- no fishy taste here.
My partner's Honey Glazed Salmon ($12.99) was fresh, by his standards, which are a bit high since he spent his adolescence cooking at the Mansion Clam House in Westport, Conn. A seafood snob, he is, but he chowed down at Tony's.
The side of vegetables, carrots, green beans and assorted others were overcooked and without taste. (They seemed canned, but I'm not saying they were.)
Before we left, we fed the cat. She got really quiet after that. Jalapeno poppers will do that. Don't know why we didn't think of it before. Moments later, there was a catfight with a raccoon over the poppers. I broke it up.
Tony's was more adventure than I planned for one night, but check it out. Where else can you encounter wildlife, eat good food, listen to the soundtrack of your childhood and get a panoramic view of the river? Plus they have great live music and an outdoor bar Friday and Saturday evenings.
Tony says get their early, by 6:30, because it's packed. Bring a date -- one you know well.
TONY'S ON THE RIVER
Go: 1329 U.S. 52, New Richmond
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m Friday-Saturday
Entrée Prices: $5.99-$22.99
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood
Accessibility: Fully accessible