We stood in the hallway entrance of Anthony's Runway 84, all of us fuming over what had just happened. My wife was applying lip gloss in the bathroom and rehearsing how she would tell off the maître d'. My aunt and uncle figured we ought to just drop it, but I couldn't let this stand. I didn't catch the host's name, so we'll call him the Consigliere. He greeted me with his hand out as I got ready to unload on him.
We should've figured our night would get to this point. Our capo, a jittery waiter named Guido, let us know early on with not-so-subtle hints that our field trip here would be a short one.
Anthony's has been around only since 1981, but its feel is decidedly old Fort Lauderdale, as in, the retirement community for New York wannabe wiseguys in need of a decent meatball. Owner Anthony Bruno is probably better-known now for his chain of pizza joints, Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, where burning-hot ovens make fantastic well-done pies (read an article on the pizza joint on page 28). At Anthony's Runway 84, the walls of the hallway entrance are filled with years of semicelebrities appearing to leisurely enjoy their meal.
Anthony's Runway, 84330 W. State Road 84, Fort Lauderdale. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Sunday 4 to 10 p.m. Call 954-467-8484.
For us, Guido breezed through the specials and then rebuffed our attempt to order appetizers first. "I gotta get the whole order," he said in an accent that sounded a bit Italian, a little Brooklyn. When asked why, he offered: "The chef — if you put in the order in two, you will be here all night."
I asked if that meant we ought to rush. "Nobody's gonna rush you," Guido said, as if the Godfather himself had given us a pass.
He at least took our drink order first, a $36 bottle of Chianti from a relatively reasonable wine list. The temporary break from Guido gave us time to look around and wonder if the regulars were following this same no-appetizers-first rule. And there were certainly many regulars. They packed the bar off to the State Road 84 side of the dining room, back behind the full-sized replica of an airplane fuselage. A cartoony cutout of a plane completed the runway theme on the opposite side, and in between, tables were packed with diners and plates big enough to be considered elsewhere as family-sized servings.
Guido hung around as we considered our order, standing just off to the side near an empty table. He loomed stalker-like, close enough that he could probably hear our conversations. He dropped in every couple of minutes to see if we had decided.
Before we ordered, my uncle pointed to a nearby table where a woman had begun on what looked like perhaps a week's worth of food. "What is that mound of stuff?" he asked. We scanned the menu and figured it had to be the $29 "Italian Sunday feast," which typified a menu that features all the standard Marsalas and Parmesans.
My uncle and I had agreed to an arrangement that wouldn't break my expense account — he'd pay for the wine and I'd pick up the meal. When my uncle asked Guido about the separation, he wasn't going for it. "No, I will bring one check, and you will divide it," he declared. It seemed the Don had spoken.
We ordered — everything at once — and within minutes came hot, crusty Italian bread with Parmesan dipping sauce and simple house salads with a salami-slice decoration and garlicky dressing. A minute later came mussels marinara, which comes with the meals and, apparently, a bit of sand mixed in with a red sauce too sour for mussels.
For the appetizers, we ordered a special of grilled shrimp accompanied by a simple dice of tomatoes and garlic. The prawn-sized shrimp were perfectly cooked but effortless, flavored only from the grill. At $10 each shrimp, they were entirely too expensive. That's especially true compared to our second starter, a $10 plate the menu describes this way: "It's All About the Meatballs." It came with two soft meatballs almost as mild as the creamed ricotta that came on the side.
"My pet peeve," said my uncle, who had flown into town minutes earlier, "is when you've just taken a bite and then they come over and ask how it is. So far, our guy has passed the test."
As we ate, Guido maintained his spot nearby at the empty table, as if he were ready to take a bullet if an assassin approached. Luckily, I had sat with my back to the wall.
He left his watchman spot minutes later, returning with my Italian Sunday Feast, which was indeed a mound of food. It featured the same meatball from the appetizer, a rather chewy bracciola, a link of mild Italian sausage, and the star of the plate — a pork rib made tender from a day hanging out in gravy. That sauce, however, offered little more than the flavor of tomato paste on my rigatoni, which got a garnish of the creamy ricotta. The plate was enough for three meals, but I was glad we hadn't asked Guido about sharing — I'm just not sure what the Family would think.
My wife had the worst luck at the table, with a $25 bowl of rigatoni covered in crumbled sausage and broccoli rabe. The sauce tasted of pasta water and garlic and, with the broccoli rabe, was overwhelmingly bitter. My aunt got the special, a fine $26 chicken breast covered in a creamy tomato sauce, cheese, mushrooms, and prosciutto, but I'm fairly sure the latter was actually boiled ham.
Before ordering, my uncle had asked if anyone objected to veal, and yeah, it seemed everyone else had a personal ban. He ordered it anyway, and I'll admit with some guilt that I'm glad he did, because he ended up with a gem of a rib veal chop ($38). It paired nicely with the mushrooms smothered across the top. The chop's grilled crust seemed to be the only flavoring aside from salt and pepper, but that char provided a beautiful contrast to the tender meat inside, especially the bite I pilfered close to the bone. It didn't melt as much as dissolve.
Not long after we finished, Guido stopped by, just about whispering. "Coffee or dessert, or just the check?" It wasn't as much an offer as a hope that it was coming to an end, but we instead asked for a dessert menu. He said they didn't have one, so he ran through them in a hurry with a pained look on his face. He offered little explanation when asked what's best. "Tiramisu." Anything else? "Chocolate cake."
We ordered them both ($6 each), and Guido looked like he had gotten a fish in a box delivered to his door. He brought by our cups of decaf first and very quickly, but there would be no refills.
As for the desserts, the chocolate cake was simply nothing better than Sysco could make — a sweet icing, floury layers of cake, and a simple chocolate sauce at the bottom. The tiramisu too was a miss, with a dry, lonely ladyfinger lying on top of gummy frosting. The heavy cake underneath was doused in too much liqueur, but it still wasn't enough to overcome the dry cake layers. With all that booze, it was a dessert and a shot.
Or hell, maybe those desserts were decent, but it would've been hard to tell with Guido hovering. He delivered the check with the desserts. He stood not at his perch at a nearby table but almost over my aunt's shoulder, looking out over the restaurant occasionally, then back to check on the status of our desserts. Finally, I asked him over to see what was up.
"We are very busy tonight," he proffered. I asked if maybe we should eat faster. "Well, we are very busy, and people are waiting for this table."
He left, and my wife asked: "Did he just suggest that we eat faster?"
Yes, yes, he did.
Not taking the hint, I asked for a refill of water. Every glass on the table was empty. Guido hurried over with a pitcher of water and refilled my glass halfway, without a glance in the direction of the other glasses, then scooted off to his perch two feet away. When we finally felt so uncomfortable that our half-eaten desserts were no longer edible, we stood, and busboys immediately descended before we could collect ourselves.
The Consigliere was there too, in his pin-striped suit, a pressed shirt with a spearpoint collar, and white and black spat shoes, all making him look like he might have a Tommy gun under his jacket. "Put these two tables together with this one," he said over our former seats. Then he realized he was being rude. "Folks, how was dinner tonight?"
What we wanted to say was that we felt like we had gotten prematurely whacked after dropping $350 for dinner. But we grunted responses and headed for the hallway of famous people.
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It was there, under the photos of various minor movie gangsters, that I figured I ought to say something. The Consigliere was back at his post, illuminated by the light clipped to his podium. "How was everything?" he said, offering his hand.
He continued to grip it as I suggested that we felt rushed, that it seemed Guido and the Consigliere himself wanted us out. He put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me a bit closer. "I'm sorry you feel this way," he said. "Why don't you put your email on this list and we'll make sure you get something nice?"
It wasn't a question as much as a conclusion, so wouldn't you know that I put my email down. Actually, my wife's email, because who knows what the Consigliere was planning to send. (But it turns out no email has arrived.)
As we left, I glimpsed back at the signed jersey from Dan Marino, a football player with a good, Italian name. He probably gets to order appetizers first.