Fine-Dining on a Budget

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Posted December 31, 2008 in Eats

Lately the Inland Empire has been all over news reports, both in the U.S.A. and globally. It turns out we’re number one in several areas where you don’t want to be first. Like mortgage foreclosures, for instance. Unemployment rates have skyrocketed, too; at 9.8% we here in Riverside County lead the state. Riverside Renaissance? More like a desert dark ages.

 

Which led us in search for a bargain while dining out, the only caveat being we didn’t want “cheap food.” Lo and behold, we found a relaxed fine-dining experience in Rancho Cucamonga that doesn’t bleed the wallet. Antonino’s Italian Restaurant—formally known as Chianti Ristorante—is all about tasty, comfort food, with the bulk of the menu’s entrées falling in the range of $10-$14 per. On the night my friend and I went we had an appetizer, two entrées, a bottle of house wine and coffees for a grand total of $74—I’d call that a bargain. It definitely didn’t feel like a splurge.

 

The first thing that stood out was the great service we received at Antonino’s. Our server, “Kat,” claimed to be a waitress-in-training, but she hit all the notes I look for when dining—she never once asked if we were done “working” on anything; she never hovered around inspectively, as if to insinuate she needed to turn the table over; and yet, she didn’t abandon our table either. Kat was there when we needed her, and gone when we didn’t.

 

The food she brought out was excellent; the wine, not so much. Antonino’s has an expansive wine list, but we stuck to the budget plan and opted for the house red—let’s just say we got what we paid for on this one. The cheap wine was redeemed by excellent French bread shaped curiously like Abe Vigoda’s skull, all heat on the outside. While we waited for the appetizer another waiter bellowed “Happy Birthday” in Italian to another table. Such familial treatment was relaxing, and we couldn’t help feeling relaxed—Antonino’s does that to a person.

 

Then the Gambretti con Funghi arrived, which means shrimp with mushrooms, a dish that’s basically garlic, basil, “wild” mushrooms, and a champagne cream reduction sauce. A simple dish, but it happened to be the undeniable standout of the meal. Antonino’s shrimp are fresh and bursting with taste, as each is infused with the sauce that literally serves as what’s it’s described as—an appetizer. If I could go back and do the meal over (which I can), I would/will do a Tapas like number with the excellent sounding appetizers on the menu.  

 

But we were more traditional than that, ordering definitive entrées. The Ravioli Di Spinaci had a nice texture and a sauce that parallels the appetizer sauce only with a slow-cooked tomato base rather than a cream base.  The spinach and cheese in the butter-sautéed raviolis leave a trail of garlic, and it’s a fantastic trail indeed. This is a can’t-miss item, and my friend scored by ordering it. Me, on the other hand, I ordered the Ciopinno—and, in retrospect, this was a case of seafood overload. The Stracciatella con Tortellini (egg drop) might have served me better after the gambretta before. Still, fish soup comes down to the Italian pesce and frutti de mare, which for the most part was quite hearty and delicious, from the tiny octopi to the succulent scallops. 

 

We left Antonino’s stuffed and satisfied, with no major financial bailout required. If we weren’t enacting The Grapes of Wrath Two with our budget, we could have ordered a bottle of Arciero Estates from out there in Paso Robles and turned a coach-class house into a fine first-class experience. Turns out you don’t have to be rich to make the most of it.

 

Antonino’s, 8045 Vineyard Ave Rancho Cucamonga, (909) 941-0047; www.antoninosrestaurant.net. AE, MC, V

 


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