SENECA FALLS — Hugs, flowers and emergency runs for extra food.
In many ways it was like a wake last week at Antonina’s Restaurant, which closed after serving its last dinner Saturday evening.
Nostalgic, well-wishing customers made the eatery’s last week “crazy busy,” said John McDermott, who along with his wife, Annette, has run the restaurant on the corner of Bridge and West Bayard streets since 1977.
But Antonina’s has been in Annette’s family for a century, a throwback to the Seneca Falls of old.
The original eatery was opened by Annette’ s grandparents — Antonio and Antonina Vacca — in the same location and was called Vacca’s. The current dining room used to be a grocery store, and the bar area is where food was served.
The restaurant then became Pete and Frank’s — run by Pete and Vickie Vacca and Frank and Sadie Kukiela. It was only out of the family for about five years until the McDermott’s took over 37 years ago, renaming the business Antonina’s in homage to Annette’s grandmother; Antonina also happens to be her real name.
It’s a place where not only the business has been handed down but also the recipes for sauce and meatballs.
“It’s just been an amazing farewell,” said Annette McDermott. “We’ve been so busy, thank God, I haven’t been able to think about it that much. I’ve been so touched. People have been coming in saying how sorry they are to see us go, but they’re happy for me.”
On Friday afternoon, Molly Headley paid her bill after a late afternoon lunch, chatted with Annette in the galley near the kitchen and gave John a hug before leaving.
Headley, a patron since Antonina’s opened, was in for lunch and to offer good wishes to a couple years beyond retirement age.
She described Antonina’s as a place where time has stood still and where the waitresses always know what she wants to order — usually veal parmesan, although sometimes she’ll throw a curve ball by asking them to hold the blue cheese on her salad.
Headley also joked about never missing “morning Mass” on St. Patrick’s Day.
“If you weren’t here we’d be looking for you,” John McDermott retorted.
Son Chad McDermott stopped by later in the afternoon; he’s the one who brought a mini-version of the New Year’s Eve ball drop to Antonina’s after being inspired by a visit to New York City. That annual event will continue elsewhere, he said — he’s already gotten several offers for a new spot.
Chad, an iron worker, and his brother John, an electrician — were not interested in taking over the restaurant, and Annette said she and her husband have talked about retiring for years. Although rumors abound about a possible reopening, she is almost certain the retirement is a permanent one. She said she wants to travel, enjoy her granddaughters and “see how the other half lives.”
As Annette fielded afternoon phone calls for weekend reservations, her son said he’s happy his parents are finally saying goodbye. The couple will be married 50 years this coming July 4.
“I was ready for them [to retire] five years ago. They deserve their break,” he said. “I just hope they take their break and do something with it.”
On Friday night, it was clear a break is well deserved.
The dining room was full, as was the bar with eager customers ready to take their tables. As one large party left, Annette — a wisp of a woman barely 5 feet tall — started bussing tables furiously.
Among those waiting to sit down were Phyllis and Sam Altimari of Seneca Falls, who usually pop in once or twice a month for chicken parmesan and spaghetti with oil and garlic.
“I’m hoping they change their minds,” said Phyllis Altimari, commenting on the restaurant’s family atmosphere as a toddler cried nearby. “It’s really good food and good service. Our niece is one of the waitresses.”
Dick Mashewske of Dresden drove to Seneca Falls with his wife for one last meal; the couple owns a cottage on Lower Lake Road and learned at a recent visit to Connie’s Diner in Waterloo that Antonina’s would be closing. When asked what he liked most about the place, Mashewske simply answered “the food.” But without a reservation that night, there would be none for him. The couple left without eating.
Tom Stephan of Waterloo, on the other hand, ate twice at Antonina’s on Friday.
The Xylem employee had fish for lunch — and dinner. On Friday evening, he joined his wife Kim and his Xylem co-worker Ken Capuano of Rochester for their “last supper.”
The two men exited the dining room with menus in hand, mementos of a place where they came to make memories when they brought “pump school” clients to Antonina’s for working dinners.
Stephan said the groups of up to 30 people would usually be served the same thing, spaghetti with sauce and two meatballs. Then platters of hot sausage would start appearing and a contest would begin to see who could consume the most. The all-time record stands at 12.
Stephan said their guests loved not only the food, but the restaurant’s classic nature.
“That’s why we came here,” he said. “To create memories. You can only remember so much about pumps.”
Capuano, who comes from a large Italian family, broke his diet Friday evening for one last plate of ziti and meatballs and a glass of red wine — “just like pump school.”
“I can tell you here this is authentic Italian food,” he said, praising its simplicity and Antonina’s atmosphere as a place where everyone knows everybody else.
Before leaving, Stephan’s wife snapped photos of the men inside and outside the eatery as they talked about how hard it would be to drive by each night after work past a shuttered and dark Antonina’s.
Despite the crowds waiting for a table and the work to be done, Annette McDermott found time to chat with customers and make one last comment to this reporter, whom she hugged while doing so.
“Please let everybody know John and Annette would like to thank all their patrons for supporting them over the years.”
Then she quickly disappeared, another plate of pasta needing to be dished up.