When I think of all of New York City’s small businesses walloped by the Covid-19 storm—especially its marvelous restaurants—I immediately think of Antonucci Café, on 81st Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. There is so much to admire about the Venetian restaurant, starting with its owner, Francesco Antonucci.
A native of Venice, Antonucci personifies the entrepreneurial zest without which success in the unforgiving restaurant trade is often elusive. In 1987, he opened the original Remi restaurant on East 79th Street, which he later moved to a larger space on West 53rd Street, and another Remi in Santa Monica. In 1993 and 1994, he opened his third and fourth Remis, in Mexico City and Tel Aviv. Eventually, he began downsizing, selling the final remaining Remi on 53rd Street in 2005 and opening Antonucci Café, which now commands one of the most loyal followings in the city.
Antonucci has many of the virtues of his native town: he is festive, stylish, good-hearted, and unflappable. Indeed, before the lockdown, he had been in Venice, visiting relatives slowly recovering from the worst flood to hit the sea-girt city in 53 years. For him to return to New York and find that restaurants here would not be reopening for the foreseeable future was a double blow. On the heels of the lockdown, of course, came the George Floyd protests, with the concomitant need to protect storefronts against looters. But that is another story. The news that restaurants would be allowed to open indoors at 25 percent of capacity was the first good news for Antonucci and other restaurateurs in New York City in a long time. The reversal of that decision, with a re-banning of indoor dining in Manhattan, tested their resourcefulness to the absolute limit. Now hope is returning again, as indoor dining resumes at partial capacity.
Antonucci has been weathering the unprecedented hard times of Covid with his accustomed pluck. He is at the restaurant every day from early morning to closing time; he both oversees and helps with the cooking for the restaurant’s robust takeout and delivery service, as well as its outdoor service; he is on the phone with other Upper East Side restaurateurs daily, working to protect his highly successful but ravaged business; and he is plotting new ways to ensure that his customer base not only stays with him but grows, once the all-clear sounds. For example, he is refashioning his Vaporetto wine bar (adjacent to Antonucci) as a catering and party facility. He has met the storm of the virus not with panic or defeatism or hand-wringing but with the serenity of good seamanship—and renewed dedication.
The adaptiveness that Antonucci has so far shown to the ongoing crisis has been nothing short of heroic. He and his staff have enhanced their social media profile to get the word out that the restaurant is very much open for business—just not for full “in-person” business. They have equipped their website to facilitate delivery and pickup orders. They have increased their outside dining space. They are looking after their furloughed staff by running a GoFundMe campaign. They are offering gift certificates for customers who wish to help the restaurant thrive in this transitional phase, an initiative that has garnered munificent responses from certain unnameable members of Antonucci’s celebrity clientele. And they are offering big discounts on their excellent wines.
As yet, Mayor Bill de Blasio has given no official indication as to when or how the city’s restaurants can expect to reopen fully. Restaurateurs like Antonucci still face a maelstrom of uncertainty. Neither the federal nor the state government has made realistic provisions for the plight of these entrepreneurs and their beleaguered staffs; public officials have described dates and protocols for reopening in only the vaguest terms. All that Antonucci and thousands of other restaurant owners throughout the city can do is to be ready to take advantage of the full reopening when it comes. Being able to reopen indoor dining will help them begin making that long overdue, vital transition.
The great French gastronome and wit Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755–1826) cited four essential elements for any good restaurant: “an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar and superior cooking.” No restaurant satisfies these criteria better than Antonucci. Its space is one of the smartest in the city—a bright, cozy, whimsical mélange of paintings and knick-knacks, which nicely offsets the inspired simplicity of the owner’s culinary fare; the wait staff is as welcoming as it is unobtrusive; the cellar features a particularly good Brunello Piancornello (2015) and an Amarone della Valpolicella Clivus (2015); and the cookery is consistently superb, with such northern Italian classics as veal osso buco with saffron risotto and nicely crisp chicken Milanese with arugula, tomato, and Parmesan. Another culinary standout at Antonucci is the fish—from the glorious fish stew to the whole branzino à la plancha with string beans, pesto, cherry tomatoes, and salmoriglio dressing. For dessert, Antonucci’s luscious buttermilk panna cotta with amaretto-suffused berries is a must. My wife and I had the fish stew takeout on a recent evening, and it was sublime, especially with the Sancerre and seared calamari salad. Takeout, under Antonucci’s auspices, acquires a whole new pizzazz.
Over the years, I have brought many New Yorkers and out-of-town friends to Antonucci for lunch or dinner—financiers, philanthropists, writers, editors, scholars, lawyers, priests—and they have all left besotted not only with the food, drink, and service of the place but with its charm, grace, and warmth. Indeed, to be at Antonucci on an evening when the house is packed and Antonucci himself, with his boyish grin and double-breasted blazer, is making his way from table to table greeting his ebullient guests is a great New York experience. It’s a pity that The New Yorker writer and trencherman A. J. Liebling (who grew up just a few streets north of the restaurant) is no longer with us: he would have exulted in the place.
In The Physiology of Taste (1825), Brillat-Savarin speaks of what he calls “gastronomical tests,” by which he means “dishes of recognized savour and such indispensable excellence that the mere sight of them must arouse all the gustative powers of a properly constituted man, from which it follows that in such a case all those whose face shows no kindling of desire or glow of ecstasy can justly be marked down as unworthy of the honours of the occasion and the pleasures involved.” I can solemnly avow that no one I’ve ever hosted at Antonucci has failed this gastronomical test.
Tricia Antonucci, who works side by side with her husband, says that one of the great silver linings of Covid-19 has been the way that patrons have responded to the crisis. When sharing with me the letters of support and the many acts of kindness and generosity that she and her husband and their staff have received, Tricia became tearful. “There has been such an outpouring of support from our customers, so much fellow feeling, so much considerateness,” she says. “It has been very moving for Francesco and the staff and me. We are surrounded by love.” This is the love that has always sustained the Antonuccis in their culinary endeavors—and it will see them and their beloved restaurant through this tempest, too.
Photo: The Upper East Side restaurant, which opened in 2005 (COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR)