The restaurant’s exterior is fairly unassuming (save for a cute little al fresco courtyard to the right of the entrance) but the interior is gorgeous. The theme is 1950s Italy. There’s black and white pictures of movie stars, Persian rugs, pastels, golds, fresh flowers and thoughtfully selected art adorning the walls. There’s even a mini library towards the rear of the room which is used for private dining, the shelves are decorated with almost as many wine bottles as books. Wine is a big deal here, but more on that later.
As well as the private dining ‘library’ Antico has a main restaurant and bar area to which I’m led following my quick tour. The bar is like something from the set of La Dolce Vita. There are lots of mirrors, marble and thick, expensive looking curtains with detailed swags and tails. There’s an elaborate set of giltwood 19th century-style chairs surrounding a low wooden table, where I’m invited to sit and enjoy a strong Italian coffee. I like this place already.
I’m joined by Virginio, the restaurant’s co-owner and Head Chef. Fresh from the kitchen, he sits down to talk Italian food and wine and explain to me the ethos behind his restaurant which has been open for a year. ‘We only need five ingredients from Italy,’ he explains in an Italian accent largely unaffected by 21 years spent living in the North East. ‘We need our Italian plum tomatoes from the South of Italy – they’re essential. We need the pasta, we need rice for the risotto, parmesan cheese and the extra virgin olive oil. After that we use local produce and can come up with pretty much anything.’
Virginio tells me that he thrives on being creative in the kitchen and loves it when his regular customers ask him to create something special. ‘Sometimes they don’t even look at the menu, they just say “We’d like some seafood tonight, cook us something special,” so I’ll make a dish based on whatever’s fresh and good. It’s something we do quite often. We might make a seafood platter, we might serve carpaccio with tuna, or tuna three ways. Sometimes they come back and ask for the same special again and I can’t remember what I did because it was spontaneous!’
It’s this attitude that sums up Antico. It’s not the kind of place that turns tables over three or four times a night. Instead, people who appreciate good, authentic food and wine visit and spend two or three hours relaxing in the laid-back surroundings. ‘I don’t think you get that from chain restaurants,’ Virginio laments. ‘You know you’re going to get authenticity here. Chain restaurants don’t have chefs, they have cooks, everything has been standardised, there is no flair.’
An example of the authenticity you’ll find at Antico can be found in little details such as the way they prepare their pizza dough. Once kneaded, the dough goes in the fridge for 36 hours. It’s a Neapolitan technique that gives it a longer fermentation period. The end product is an extra crispy texture.
Likewise pasta is made fresh and to order. ‘Most places will pre-cook pasta and put it in containers. We use egg pasta which takes about six minutes to cook, and we only make it when someone orders it from the menu, that’s what makes the difference. Our pasta is not washed out and put in a fridge. If you serve pasta piping hot, it absorbs the sauce better, it sticks together and is delicious.’ The quality even extends to the olives and breadsticks served – marinated and made fresh in the kitchen rather than bought in.
Seafood is equally popular at Antico. Coming from the Amalfi Coast, Virginio knows good fish, and that’s reflected in the menu he has created. ‘The seafood linguine is popular, as is the risotto with tiger prawns and asparagus. We only have two or three kinds of fresh fish on the menu at one time. For example: sea bass, salmon, scallops, and we’ll make fish soup too. I buy what’s good from the daily market. If the monkfish and sea bream is good I’ll buy it and put it on the specials board.’
Fresh pizza, pasta and seafood. What’s missing? Wine is arguably Antico’s trump card. They have a serious amount of wine at their disposal and the man with the key to the cellar is Antico co-owner (and resident wine expert) Antonio. ‘He worked front of house at one of my restaurants in Sunderland for five or six years,’ explains Virginio. ‘We decided to do something together and for the last year we’ve been concentrating on Antico. We still have a restaurant in Washington, it’s called La Retro Italia at The Board Inn, and we might open a third outlet somewhere else.’
While I’ve been sipping coffee and chatting with Virginio, Antonio has been beavering away in the background. Talking to regulars and staff, phoning through orders to suppliers, pouring champagne and generally making sure everyone is happy. He’s been dipping in and out of our conversation to ask about my dictaphone, have banter with me about England’s forthcoming World Cup game against Italy (correctly predicting that Italy would win 2-1) and listing the footballers who come to Antico. Not even a driving ban could keep one of his Premier League regulars away, he still regularly taxis in to visit his favourite restaurant.
When I try to pin Antonio down to talk about an exclusive wine list he’s been working on, La Cantina Di Antonio (The Cellar of Antonio), he asks Virginio to talk me through the concept. ‘We have a basic wine list,’ Virginio explains. ‘Then we have another 40 to 50 wines in the cellar, mainly red. We’ve invested quite a lot in this special cantina, as we call it.’ The cantina is super-exclusive, it’s been specially created by Antonio for wine connoisseurs and customers prepared to go the extra yard for a good bottle of wine. ‘Antonio will make suggestions and go through the cantina menu with customers based on what they would like or based on what will go best with the food. These wines are not on the regular wine list. It’s a good selection. Every wine we bring in we’ve personally tasted with some food.’
This menu is available if you request it, rather than it being pushed on diners. On it you’ll find everything from a £20 bottle of Argentieri (a soft, chewy blend of Negroamaro and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes imported from Salento) to a £100 bottle of 2005 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico (perfectly suited to roasts and game but also ideal with strong cheese).
All the wines are Italian and mainly red. Antonio is a firm believer that Italian food is best consumed with Italian wine. Compiling the cantina wine list has been a labour of love for him. The day I am shown it he is still applying final touches ahead of its launch in July. There can’t be many better thought out wine lists in the North East, but there’ll be no fanfare when it becomes available. It’s just a luxury option for people who will appreciate great wine.
The understated nature of La Cantina Di Antonio wine list epitomises Antico’s approach to Italian food and drink. ‘We’re just trying to be different,’ says Virginio. ‘We believe in what we do and hopefully the hard work will pay off.’ This place is a real hidden gem, but now the secret is out.
– See more at: http://www.livingnorth.com/northeast/food-drink/passion-personality-and-plenty-wine