Imagine the following: A small Italian restaurant packed with locals and regulars, including a few who laugh and joke with the owner and workers; classic lounge songs and Italian music playing softly in the background; and heaping plates of pasta with "gravy" and freshly-made meatballs on top that are quickly being polished off by hungry diners. It sounds like any number of places that you might find on Salem Street or Hanover Street in Boston's North End, doesn't it? Well, in this case, the restaurant is located on...Beacon Hill? Yes, indeed, and even though it has been around for many years, Antonio's Cucina Italiana remains a bit of a hidden gem on a street filled with little-known restaurants.
Antonio's Cucina Italiana is located on the northern edge of Beacon Hill on a section of Cambridge Street that has become a bit of a "restaurant row," with such places as The Hill Tavern, Griddler's, Harvard Gardens, Pierrot Bistrot Francais, Ma Soba, and a handful of other spots. Like most of these places, Antonio's is on the small side, with a single rectangular room having three rows of tables, including a couple of window tables that are great for people-watching. Lighting is supplied in part by dimly-lit sconces that share wall space with simple yet attractive prints. Because of its brick floor, Antonio's can get just a bit on the loud side, but since this is more of a casual neighborhood Italian eatery than an elegant upscale bistro, the noise level actually seems to be a natural fit for the place.
There are certainly a number of Italian restaurants in the Boston area with more inventive menus than that of Antonio's, as the restaurant pretty much features straight-ahead Southern Italian fare. But their take on familiar Italian and Italian-American food includes some superior versions of the standards, including a fresh Caesar salad that is served close to room temperature and is heavy on the eggs and anchovies; a tortellini soup that has a zesty tomato broth and savory meat-filled pasta; a pasta fagioli with a similarly zesty broth and lots of pasta and beans; a delicious baked manicotti filled with creamy ricotta cheese; a plate of homemade fusilli mixed with a hearty marinara sauce (and the option of wonderful housemade meatballs that are made with pork and beef); an outstanding chicken rafael that has some of the best-tasting pink vodka cream sauce that this writer has had in the Boston area; a tortellini pesto that is a must if you like your pesto just a bit on the salty side; an eggplant braciolitine dish that has creamy ricotta stuffed inside the eggplant, mild mozzarella melted on top, and Antonio's great red sauce coating everything; and a swordfish plate that gets an extra boost in flavor from vinegar. Desserts include all the standards, such as tiramisu, cannoli, and spumoni. Antonio's has a handful of beers, a number of wines (including a dense and buttery house chianti) and several apertifs (campari, grand marnier, frangelico).
Beacon Hill actually has several Italian restaurants, mostly scattered along the edges of the neighborhood, with Antonio's Cucina Italiana perhaps being the best option for a fairly quick and casual meal. And it is a good alternative to its competitors in the North End, as parking is less of a hassle, prices are plenty reasonable, and table availability isn't generally a huge problem, depending on when you go. Sure, it won't win any awards for atmosphere or creativity, but for those who want good Italian food cheap, Antonio's is indeed a terrific choice.
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