ANTONE'S ITALIAN RESTAURANT
Where: 6487 Brockton Avenue, Riverside
Founded: 1965 by Anthony and Mary Verani
Owners since 2008:Rosanne Verani and her husband, Kurt Brungardt
Hours: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Monday through Friday
Right up until her recent death at 90, Josephine Scarano wouldn’t touch the meatballs at any Riverside restaurant except one: Antone’s.
Antone’s Italian Food is testament to the family-owned, beloved bistro that’s been a fixture since the late Anthony “Tony” and Mary Verani opened it in 1965. Their daughter, Rosanne Verani and her husband, Kurt Brungardt, who took over seven years ago, are planning a 50th anniversary celebration next month.
Longtime customers say that nostalgia, the homey vibe and the good odds of bumping into the “old Riverside” habitués are as much draws as the homemade bread, from-scratch sauces and the famed meatball sub and the Italian coldcut and cheese grinder known as the Mafia.
“There are layers of time in that place,” said Josephine Scarano’s daughter, Kathryn Scarano, an Antone’s regular since 1980. “Like Mary and Tony, Rosanne and Kurt know you and your family. They’d let 18 or 20 of us have a table in the back and bring in our own cakes.”
Whenever Scarano thinks of Antone’s, the memories evoke the toast spoken by George and Mary Bailey in the Frank Capra film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”: “Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”
|Kurt Brungardt, co-owner of Antone's Italian Restaurant in Riverside, carries a tray of freshly-baked bread in the kitchen of the popular eatery that her mom and dad opened in 1965.
Verani and Brungardt are proud survivors in a tough business, where the kind of longevity Antone’s has is rare. Two other family-owned Riverside icons are D’Elia’s, a sandwich shop renowned for its crusty, homemade bread that opened in 1955 and Zacatecas Cafe, which will celebrate 52 years in September.
“We’re proudest of our consistency,” said Rosanne Verani, 55. Brungardt, 58, the baker, still hews to her father’s secret bread recipe. Verani said the sauce is “pretty close” to the original, but admits that she’s kicked up the seasonings a notch.
Otherwise, Antone’s has stayed frozen in a time warp in the same location.
|Rosanne Verani, co- owner of Antone's Italian Restaurant in Riverside, prepares homemade meat sauce in the kitchen of the popular eatery that started in 1965.
The restaurant hasn’t modernized, although the owners are installing a ramp to comply with American Disability Act standards. Antone’s does have a website, but hasn’t so much as installed a TV or gussied up the decor. As always, customers order at the front desk and plop down on schoolhouse chairs where servers bring the meal to laminated table tops.
The restaurant has stuck to basic comfort fare and one dessert, cannolis, without embracing pricey gourmet drinks or fancy food mash-ups. The barrel by the door, once piled to the top with comic books, is still heaped with magazines.
“I remember reading ‘Archie’ comics as a kid when I came in with my dad,” said regular Kurt Goma, 54, as he worked his way through a Mafia sub the other day. “This has always been a family place.”
As Verani tells it, launching the restaurant a half century ago was a major life change for her dad, the father of three girls and a 10-month-old boy.
Tired of painting houses, Tony Verani spotted a “For rent” sign on half of a duplex, a former Schwinn bike shop at 6847 Brockton Ave. at Sunnyside Drive. The entire structure was built in the 1920s as a 1,700-square-foot home, and Verani christened his 800- square-foot side Antone’s, an Italianized upgrade of “Tony.”
He also enlisted his wife, Mary, who cooked for the PTA at Liberty Elementary School, to whip up big to-go trays of ravioli, shrimp and rice and enchiladas, Italian style.
“Supposedly,” Verani recalls with a laugh, “Dad wanted mom to have a real job and make money.” As soon as they were deemed old enough by their parents, Rosanne Verani and her sisters began cleaning tables.
A couple of years later, after Tony began baking his own bread, Antone’s dropped the family-style platters to focus more on grinders. The locals kept coming back, divided into two camps: one clamoring for the hot meatball with cheese grinder and the other craving the cold Mafia sub.
|Denny Aguirre bites into a Mafia grinder at Antone's Italian Restaurant in Riverside. That and the meatball sandwich are two of the most popular menu items.
Joe Tavaglione, 67, a meatball man and a regular for decades, said: “I always recommend Antone’s to friends because I know they’ll have a good time.”
Stuart Lohr, 58, a fan since he was a student at Poly High School in 1974, is definitely a Mafia man. But he’s attracted by much more than the food. “It’s like coming home here,” said the recent retiree. “I run into a lot of old Riversiders. And Rosanne is a kick.”
In 1975 Antone’s nearly doubled in space when the Veranis began renting the 700-square-foot adjoining space when its tenant, a gift shop, vacated.
Unlike the other side, which is flooded with light, the addition is dark with a bit more atmosphere: the original cedar panel, a display of Ruffino wine bottles, a 1985 painting of the Fox Theatre , plastic grapevines, a cloth map of Italy on the wall and twinkle lights framing the lone window.
“People come in and everything is the same,” Verani said. “They absolutely love it.”
The familiarity releases memories.
Dennis Thayer, 68, a civil litigator, has been picking up lunches at Antone’s since 1972. “Tony and Mary were a couple of characters,” he said. “Rosanne reminds me more and more of her mother every day.”
Another loyalist from the 1970s is Mike Patterson, 53, a teacher in Moreno Valley. Still addicted to the turkey grinder on garlic bread, he said that Antone’s has kept prices down without sacrificing quality: “I can’t find bread like this any place else.”
Patterson chuckles when he speaks of Tony. “When you ordered food for $11, and gave him $20, he’d say: ‘$11,000 from $20,000, that’s $9,000 in change,’” he recalls. Rosanne and Kurt, he said, are carrying on Antone’s traditions of high quality, fair pricing and friendliness.
“Dad was the front guy and he never used a calculator,” Verani said. “He did everything in his head. He was personable, good-looking, charming and funny and the customers loved him. Mom hid in the kitchen.”
Before and after Tony died in 1991, his children helped keep the restaurant afloat. In the summer of 2008, two years after they lost her mother, Rosanne Verani, who’d been a teacher, and her husband stepped in. “Their was the lure of being of our boss and the sentimentality of keeping the family name,” Brungardt said.
Antone’s legacy just might be assured. Verani and Brungardt’s son, Casey, 20, and daughter, Carrie, 17, both work at the restaurant part-time.
But a hand-off won’t happen anytime soon. “We have no plans to retire,” Verani said.
| A lunchtime customer sprinkles crushed red pepper on his grinder at Antone's Italian Restaurant in Riverside, which turns 50 this year.