917 Southbridge St, Auburn
J. Anthony’s is a sprawling enterprise with an array of lounge areas, dining rooms and outdoor spaces. When my friend and I walked in the host greeted us with options: these high-top tables? Too high. Pointing to tables near the door; are these OK? No, too loud and busy. Nodding in agreement, she happily led us to another room past the lounge. Just right!
Moments later, Christina, our server, arrived with a bowl of popcorn and took our drink order. I selected a glass of Sierra Nevada Brewing’s Hazy Little Thing, an IPA moderately bitter and hoppy. Nibbling buttery-salted popcorn and sipping refreshing IPA I found myself relaxing after the rush-hour traffic through the interchanges of routes 290, 12 and 20.
We were selecting one of the calamari appetizer variations until we read a bit further and came upon Mussels Marinara. Both appealed, but when the decision rests on steamed vs. deep-fried, I’ll run with the steamed mussels.
J. Anthony’s mussels were uniformly medium in size, plump and juicy, with not a trace of grit. They were heaped in a pool of thick tomato marinara imbued with just a hint of mussel flavor. The portion was plenty enough for two but, unwilling to waste good marinara, we doctored the remainder with shakes of grated cheese and, to give it some ‘kick’, red pepper flakes. Then we dunked slices of Italian bread.
Although J. Anthony’s menu is, as one might expect, dominated by Italian cuisine, it also features a generous range of sandwiches and burgers. Mashed potato burger anyone? My friend selected the Reuben Sandwich and was delighted with the stack of thick-sliced corned beef, warm sauerkraut, and melted Swiss cheese, all crammed between toasted marble rye. “Nearly as good as Carnegie Deli in New York!” he exclaimed as he nibbled one of his crispy-golden French fries.
Finding a good Reuben has become an object of quest. For various reasons ranging from absent sauerkraut to ‘ran out of corned beef’, I haven’t encountered a good one in quite a while. It’s assuring to finally find a source.
From the menu’s ‘Modern Italian’ section I chose Shrewsbury Street Shrimp Pasta for my entrée. Eight large shrimp were cooked perfectly tender, simmered in a butter and wine sauce flavored with garlic-perfumed basil pesto, and then tossed with bowtie pasta. Strips of rich sundried tomato added a punch of flavor and color; soft artichoke hearts provided textural contrast.
It was a fitting tribute to one of the dishes that helped ignite the phenomenon of Shrewsbury Street’s restaurant row. Indeed, I first encountered it as ‘seafood sauté,’ a dish by John Grosse. Midway through my meal he came out of the kitchen to our table, looked at my plate, grabbed it from me and went back to the kitchen. Moments later he returned triumphant with a mountain of delectable seafood.
Shortly thereafter, John moved across the street and opened East Park Grille where lines of hungry customers stretched out to the street, eager for his cuisine. The rest, of course, is history.
Back to the present, we found the breadth of J. Anthony’s Italian Grill. Despite their full lounge, bustling dining rooms and a retirement party packing their banquet space, service was friendly and prompt; our meals were fresh and delicious.