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Smooth Operator

Venue's longevity due to consistent quality

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Three servers encircle the six-top table beside me. In one well-rehearsed, choreographed move, they simultaneously lift the lids of the stainless cloche domes to reveal the six entrees. Ten minutes later, an even larger group of servers, expediters and busers perform another unveiling for a large birthday party in the back room. Amidst the chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs," the employees seem delighted. The employees of Villa Antonio Ristorante have been performing this ritual at their restaurant on South Boulevard since 1987, when Antonio Garcia first opened the place. Garcia, a native of Madrid, came to Charlotte during the 1980s for the opportunity to open his own restaurant. He had spent years in fine-dining Italian establishments in Los Angeles where competition was intense.

After moving to Charlotte, he converted a Mexican restaurant into his dream. Then in 2002, he bought the adjacent property (formerly the Silver Cricket) and expanded his restaurant to include a dance floor, an enlarged bar area, and additional private dining rooms. Today, Garcia's two sons, Randy and Anthony, who were raised in the family business ("We started as bus boys when we were 12," explained one), are the co-owners.

Randy Garcia noted that most of their employees have been with them for 10 years or more. Loyalty extends to Villa Antonio's regular customers as well. About 100 of these frequent diners appear on their menu with dishes named after them. Hence the veal chop or cioppino or lobster agnolotti ravioli is alla "Joe or Julie Charlottean" or whoever. At my neighboring table, a customer eyed her meaty veal chop and inquired of its namesake. "I know him well. He's a great man," her server replied. Indeed.

Eating a dish named for someone you know is perversely appealing. How Charlottean is this: ordering off the menu by whom you know rather than by culinary predilection? "We started naming our menu after our customers about eight or nine years ago," said Randy Garcia. "We change our menu about every six or eight months. We talk about the names and who's been coming in. The first time a customer comes in after his name is on the menu, we give him a framed copy of that menu that all the employees have signed."

This kind of service is what brings the customers back. The servers insist on knowing your name — which is a little dicey if you want to remain an anonymous diner. Obviously, this is not the best spot for a restaurant critic or an illicit affair. After all, if you go there often enough, a dish will be named for you. (I wonder if any Villa Antonio menus have shown up in divorce court.)

Dancing is part of the gig. At times you may feel that you've crashed a wedding or are on a cruise. During the dinner hours, a musician plays primarily Tony Bennett-type songs, although on one occasion he played "Hey Baby" as a slow song. No, really. I was even more surprised that some folks were slow dancing to it. On the weekends, a DJ comes in at 11:30pm and plays 1980s tunes until 2:30am. Antonio's full menu is served until 2am.

The menu is extensive — about eight pages. In the kitchen are chefs German Hernandez, from Mexico, and Remigio Loor, from Ecuador. Both have been with Villa Antonio for a decade of more; however, the recipes come from Garcia. "Most of the recipes are my dad's. He's had Osso Bucco and the grilled veal chop on the menu since day one."

The main dining space evokes a genteel, familial atmosphere; the bar area and the adjoining private rooms behind the bar are where the parties and dancing take place.

Once seated, the housemade bread, brought with a metal container holding the balsamic and oil, reminds you that this is straightforward food: pastas and grilled meats, soups and salads, bruschetta and focaccia. Appetizers offer a seductive lure. A landslide of plump, tender sautéed clams and mussels perched in their shells above a garlic wine bath were quickly devoured. There is no skimping in the kitchen's output here. The Caesar, made tableside but without flair, was streaked with prerequisite bits of silvery anchovies. Even though winter still dictates our palates, we could not resist enjoying an early summer with buffalo-milk mozzarella, basil and vine-ripened tomato salad. Not as good was the rack of lamb: A heavy-handed, old world sauce masked the delicate flavor of the meat. Better was the shrimp scampi made deliciously rich with a mix of olive oil infused with lemon juice and capers.

Desserts are not for the faint-hearted. Even if you wanted to avoid them, a server brings the tray to the table. Bananas Foster is made tableside and the tiramisu arrives in a tall glass goblet.

Dinner entrees range from $15 for lasagna to $33 for the 16-ounce veal chop.

Restaurants that last possess a combination of skill, pride, passion and luck. Although Villa Antonio has been open for 18 years, Antonio Garcia has not opened any sequels. It's a rare restaurateur and shrewd proprietor who finds his formula the first take.

More in store? Garcia is from Spain, the country whose food is the cuisine of the moment, and son Randy hinted at a possible Garcia tapas bar in the near future. So anything is possible here — even slow dancing to "Hey Baby."

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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