Diner: Pleasant Surprises

Italian dining in West Chester is a good choice during the week

Vivaldi, Puccini and Sinatra were on the Musak at Antonios Ristorante in West Chester the cold weeknight we were there. The tables were set with plenty of silver, napkins in glasses on tablecloths, each topped with a fresh red rose. This was a very good start for what turned out to be a nice evening.

One of the things I know about restaurants: If you can, go on a weeknight. The reasons seem obvious to me, but perhaps not to the uninitiated. Basically, the staff is less stressed than on the weekend. The server won't be as busy; the manager won't be as uptight; the chef and the culinary team will be a lot more likely to make accommodations they won't have time for on a weekend. In general, everyone is more sociable. Oh, and no one is going to rush you. All these things I noticed at Antonios the night we were there.

Some would argue that reviewing a restaurant on a slow night is like watching a play in rehearsal: It can be great, but how about when the audience is there? I'll concede that. But I prefer to go during the week: It has its perks.

Our waiter at Antonios — I'll call him Jay — seemed uptight when he arrived. But my guess is that he approaches all his tables that way, serious and quiet, so he can feel them out. This is a sign of a good waiter. He warmed up and became sort of a confidante as the night progressed. Here is something else I know about restaurants: Be nice to your waiter. It seems like a no-brainer but, believe me, not everyone is. If you're nice to him, he'll hook you up, I promise. For instance, we asked him what he liked as far as appetizers were concerned. He suggested the Tri-colored Tortellini with Alfredo Sauce ($8.95). My companion tried the Lobster Bisque ($4.95).

I didn't think at the time that we'd ordered two very creamy appetizers, but things just fall that way sometimes. The bisque was full of flavor, but a bit too spicy — cayenne is my guess — and my spoon could nearly stand up in it. The tortellini were cheesy, and the pasta was just right, with a hint of nutmeg in the filling. The sauce was good but heavy, and it thickened as it cooled. We left a couple tortellini, to be honest. The appetizers were accompanied by an extremely unimaginative, luke-cold bread basket and extra virgin olive oil with herbs, which was good but got lost on the supermarket-quality bread.

Two house salads came out next — large and uninspired — which was a shame because the homemade creamy vinaigrette dressing was delicious, but could only help the iceberg so much.

I had made a couple of small requests when we ordered our entrées and was watching as Jay explained them to the chef at the open kitchen line. I figured I was OK when the chef smiled and nodded his head. When dinner arrived I was pleased and felt as though the food was made for me personally.

My date had the Pollo Romano ($16.95), a whole sautéed chicken breast, swimming in a lightly creamed, smooth tomato sauce. It seemed sweet to me, but she liked it. My man Jay had talked me into "The Duck" ($21.95). I had been leaning toward the Veal Piccata, but he assured me that "The Duck" was a specialty of the house, and it was. Splendid but intensely rich: two (two, mind you) duck breasts, pan-seared to a perfect medium-rare with a pan sauce with red wine and shallots and stock, served with a fresh sauté of vegetables. My only problem was the sauce was made with an Italian red (perhaps a chianti), and seemed off because of the inherent fruitiness of the Sangiovese grape. One man's opinion.

Both dishes came with a side of pasta. My companion's was with a fresh tomato sauce, full of basil and garlic. This is what all the entrées come with, but my special order was to have a different pasta with mine: I asked for garlic and oil — "Aglio e Olio" ($4.95) — with my duck, and I am glad I did. After all the creamy dishes I relished the olive oil, sundried tomatoes, scallions, red peppers, artichoke hearts and mushrooms tossed together, topped with a little parmesan cheese, light and fresh. I'd go back again for it in an instant.

For dessert we had the Chocolate and Raspberry Cake ($4.95) which I suspect they make at Antonios, judging by the dessert tray which also had tiramisu, but — much to my companion's dismay — no cannoli. We liked the cake and were pleasantly surprised, after an evening of heavy food, at how light it was.

Overall, I liked Antonios Ristorante. It's professional, elegant and spacious ... and there are roses on the table. One other thing I know about restaurants: Fresh flowers on the table mean pride in the business. That pride was evident the evening we dined. Give it a try — and go during the week.

Antonios Ristorante
Go: 7165 Liberty Centre Drive, West Chester

Call: 513-755-7242

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Prices: Moderate to expensive

Payment: All major credit cards accepted

Red Meat Alternatives: Meatless pasta and fish

Grade: B

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