While the Upper East Side is a perfectly lovely place to live — with plenty of great grocery stores, delivery options and old school Italian joints — it isn’t exactly a dining destination. After all, dining out is entertainment, and like anything else, we all want to see the new hit movie, broadway show, or eat at the new, hot restaurant. With the opening of Jean Georges’ The Mark and Cascabel Taqueria, the Upper East Side has certainly gotten better, but it’s still got quite a ways to go. While it’s not my first choice, I’ve always been an open-minded eater, so I was happy to meet friends at a place they love called Antonucci’s Cafe on 81st Street, just off Third Avenue. Now, I’ve lived in New York for over fifteen years and I’ve never heard of Antonucci’s, which is surprising considering I spend most waking hours thinking about food. I assumed it would be good by uptown standards (I live uptown so I can say that) or even old school Italian standards, but not citywide foodie standards.
When I got to the entrance, I had deja vu of eating at the very same address when Butterfield 81 once occupied the space. It was a rainy, chilly night, so I expected to find a half empty dining room, but the dining room was buzzing with what seemed to be a neighborhood crowd. The owner, Francesco Antonucci, formerly owned and cooked at Remi’s, a popular northern Italian restaurant in midtown, before moving uptown to open this eponymously named restaurant. Antonucci himself stands by the door greeting guests with news of a sweetbread special, tripe alla parmigiana, or grilled whole fish this evening. The walls are curiously painted pink and peppered with artwork, some of which looks rather expensive. I’ve gotten so used to brand new restaurants with ambitious young chefs and chic decor that I sometimes forget about neighborhood warhorses, like Antonucci’s, that locals return to week after week. It was a warm, welcome change and so was the breadbasket filled with long breadsticks, focaccia and flatbread. The best part was the homemade ricotta encircled in a warm, sweet tomato sauce (pictured below) that accompanied the breadbasket. Honestly, I could’ve spent the evening eating the ethereal ricotta with a big glass of wine and been content. I’ve been to so many old school Italian joints that offer a couple wines by the glass and call it a day, but Antonucci’s has an impressive wine list with ten whites by the glass and ten reds by the glass.
We started with deep-fried arancini flecked with ham and mozzarella and, more importantly, fried squash blossoms stuffed with the same dreamy ricotta made in-house. While it’s hard to reinvent calamari, Antonucci’s does just that with a stellar appetizer of seared calamari paired with a sharp pepper jelly and pistachio vinaigrette. There’s a great chopped kale salad with salty ricotta and a garlicky balsamic vinaigrette and a grilled, whole orata, terrifically moist and fresh. But the sauteed calves liver might just be the best liver dish I’ve had to date. The livers were sauteed to succulent perfection and served with vinegary onions, which beautifully offset some of the fat, over parmesan-laced polenta.. (It was right up there with the bone marrow-braised octopus fusilli at Marea and April Bloomfield’s oyster pan roast with uni crostini.) For dessert, we shared a banana souffle (pictured below) and warm molten cake. While the molten cake was good in a generic, melting chocolate kind of way, the banana souffle was a phenomenal cloud of deliciousness.
I’d happily go out of my way to eat there again. (In fact, I’m going for lunch this week.) I still want to sample the braised tripe, steamed clams with homemade sweet sausage, and the daily risotto. While Antonucci’s Cafe may not be new, it’s new to me and it’s well worth a visit… or two.
Vibe: Stylish, But Cozy.
Occasion: Cozy Evening, Date Night, Family Dinner.
Price: Appetizers, $9-$18; Entrees, $19-$29.
Address: 170 East 81 St., nr. Third Ave.
Start With: Complimentary Breadbasket Served With Homemade Ricotta & Tomato Sauce
Move Onto: Seared Calamari, Stuffed Squash Blossoms, & Sauteed Calves Liver Over Polenta
Finish With: Banana Souffle
Until We Eat Again,