It isn’t news to anyone who's visited southwest Houston that Sugar Land is riddled with restaurant chains. Since I was just a wee little thing growing up in the Fort Bend area, I have understood that places like T.G.I. Fridays and Macaroni Grill were often the closest available dinner choices, and that La Madeleine was considered the only really good spot for breakfast nearby. Yet when I hear Sugar Landers talk about getting good local food, they're quick to insist that the only place to go is inside the Loop.
Antonia's Italian Ristorante
4849 Sweetwater Blvd.
We seem willing to travel for locally owned restaurants, Sugar Landers, so why not support the places in our neck of the woods—places that are literally as local as it gets?
When I was in the later stages of high school, an Olive Garden opened up on Sweetwater near the intersection with Highway 59. For a solid five years since then, it has had a notoriously non-stop, fully-packed parking lot. We are actively supporting a mass commercial peddler of mediocre Italian food, despite the fact that just behind the giant block that is Olive Garden, there is a home-owned Italian dive for casual dinners out.
Antonia’s Italian Ristorante lies on the far end of the same Kroger shopping strip, down next to Magpie’s. It is a little place with an open, inviting dining room. Warm colors and bright décor make this spot a very family-friendly environment. It isn’t trying to be a fine dining, end-all-be-all Italian place. Antonia’s is honest in its efforts to just be a casual restaurant where people can come enjoy dinner out on a rainy day, or indulge themselves when they’re feeling too lazy to cook. It's a chain, yes—but it's a local one, with only two other locations, in Cypress and Katy.
Last week, my parents and I stopped at Antonia’s to take an in-depth look at the menu. We started our meal by enjoying a few appetizers. Ever the lover of mozzarella and tomatoes, I ordered the house caprese and found that the chef had arranged my salad in a fun tower format, just to mix things up a little. My parents split the parmesan-crusted fried artichokes—a favorite of my mother’s. Crispy and surprisingly light, the fried artichokes were terrific, if not a little difficult to eat due to the awkward shape of the artichoke hearts.
Our main meals were split into the three main categories of Italian cuisine: pasta, risotto and meat. The seafood risotto with shrimp and mussels was good. Well-cooked risotto is always a blessing, and I can guarantee you Antonia’s does it better than Olive Garden. Aromatic saffron in the rice made the earthiness of the dish blend together and gave a real pop to the aesthetics of the plate. The veal picatta was tender and soft, melting in your mouth with a subtle sauce of capers and lemon. My mom is a stickler for a good picatta, being of Sicilian descent, and she couldn’t be more pleased with the way Antonia’s handles their lemony dish. Lastly came the pasta Bolognese, a dish that I’ll order almost anytime it’s on a menu. I was pleased with the thick, meaty ragu that contained the traditional trio of tomato, carrot, and a touch of cream. Antonia’s Bolognese was pure comfort food, homey and warm and delicious.
But is Antonia’s perfect? No. Not every restaurant in Sugar Land can offer the fine-dining environment of Aura. Antonia’s has a few problems. They need to work on getting a full-time bartender who knows how to mix a drink, they need to practice what they advertise on their menu when they claim “fresh pasta made in-house daily” (as mine was slightly overcooked penne, which is not a type of pasta one can make by hand) and they need to worry less about appearances of a dish and provide more substance to its flavor.
Nevertheless, Antonia's is a simple, cozy restaurant to duck into for a good a meal with friends. It might have its flaws, but it is still miles ahead of where Olive Garden is, and it’s a real disappointment to me—as a Sugar Land food lover—to see the O.G. parking lot filled up every night when a far more worthy establishment is just around the corner of the parking lot.
Olive Garden dwellers, I beseech you to stop the madness of chain eating. We live in a city that has some of the most exciting culinary scenes in the country and has been ranked nationally for foodie travel. We can do better than Olive Garden. We can support our local eateries when we want an easy night out. So please, let’s start moving ourselves from one Italian joint to another, and give Antonia’s a little well-needed attention.