Craig Sauers chats with Antonio “Tony” Armenio, owner of Antonio’s, the long-standing Italian restaurant on Sukhumvit 31, about his life and his career as a restaurateur.
In restaurant scripture, Monday is the Sabbath. It’s the day of rest for chefs and front-of-house staff, of book- and stock-keeping for restaurateurs, of retreat for bartenders. But Antonio’s is open. And, here, it might as well be Friday. By 6:30pm, half the restaurant is full—a father, mother, and son trio striking up conversation at a corner table on the ground floor, two couples enjoying the privacy of the second-floor dining room, another pair on the terrace—and a table of 17 is about to arrive.
“When you’re long-standing, the day of the week doesn’t matter,” says Antonio “Tony” Armenio, the strongly built Italian of Australian birth, clean-shaven from the crown of his head to his chin, whose homespun recipes at his eponymous restaurant have delighted Bangkok’s diners for over a decade.
I’m sitting at the bar with him, our backs turned to a kitchen visible through a crescent moon of brick. He leisurely sips on a Grey Goose martini, a drink he “always starts with” when settling into an evening of social affairs. For me, he’s ordered an Aperol spritz. His voice is soft, but I detect a sense of urgency underneath it, a heart-on-the-sleeve determination not unlike the kind that drives the greatest athletes of our time, whose goals are seemingly always moving and expanding. After eighteen years in Thailand, Tony tells me, he’s now at a point in his life where he can reflect on his personal narrative and consider its role in the experience that underscores a dinner at Antonio’s.
The youngest of five siblings, Tony was born in Australia shortly after his parents arrived by boat, two immigrants in search of opportunity. He grew up around cooking, the Italian table transported from Puglia to Adelaide. At 19, he was managing his first restaurant—“The owner saw something in me, [and so] he threw me in the deep end.” By 2004, during his second stint in Thailand, he decided it was time to do his own thing. He felt mature enough for the commitment, the constant care and attention a young restaurant requires to grow from upstart to established, and so it began.
“Everything flipped at 40,” he says. “The last seven years have been the greatest of my life.”
As the timeline catches up to the present day, Tony excuses himself. He’s spotted a familiar face. “I’ll only be a moment,” he tells me, and saunters over to a table of two. Like friends meeting for the first time in years, they pepper their conversation laughter and pleasantries. When he returns, he leads me upstairs, where we will eat in a renovated bedroom that now serves as an intimate dining space.
Tony only breaks from his series of stories to savour foie gras with raspberry sauce or avocado baked with prawn, mozzarella, and aged Parmesan. I get the impression he’s always mingling between bites, setting the foundation for new relationships each night. More out of joy than pride, he says, “A customer who I hadn’t seen in ages came back one night, and he told me, ‘I was in New York, sitting down for dinner at this new Italian place, and all I could think about was eating at Antonio’s across the world in Bangkok.’ That was the biggest compliment I could ever receive.”
Even with his restaurant’s popularity among the city’s discerning diners—its most important critics—for years Tony still felt he lacked a certain kind of recognition. Call it the seal of approval, or vindication. As much Australian as he was Italian, Tony was like a radio stuck between stations, not fully tuned to one channel or the other. His restaurant was never truly embraced by the Italian culinary community, either. He was standing on the outside looking in. That is, until recently, when Antonio’s was bestowed the Ospitalitá Italiana seal. The award was more than a certificate, Tony explains to me as he tucks into ravioli with truffle cream, the signature of the signature dishes on his menu. “You have to have the authenticity,” he notes, “and that’s what it represents.”
In order to be eligible, a restaurant’s menu must feature a majority of traditional Italian dishes, at least one employee has to be fluent in Italian, and the wine and produce must be predominantly Italian DOP (Protected Designation of Origin). The restaurant above all has to be good. Being named an Italian dining destination by the Thai-Italian Chamber of Commerce, giving Antonio’s status among the TICC’s preferred venues, was akin to gaining entry to a members-only club.
Tony at last opens up about his latest project over an entrée of grain-fed Tajima beef served with red wine gravy. La Piazza on Sukhumvit 24 will embrace the very nature of that Italian institution—the casual eatery on the city square, where friends and family gather over good food and drinks. “It won’t be fine dining, like here at Antonio’s,” he declares, “rather a place where you can order a pizza and a couple of glasses of wine any night of the week, spontaneously. You won’t have to plan for it.”
With La Piazza, he hopes to give to Sukhumvit 24 what Antonio’s has given to 31—a landmark venue that diners visit time and again for the experience as much as the food, with any luck keeping it filled, even on Mondays. “It’s easy to build something, but much, much harder to keep it going,” he says, nodding feverishly, a serious look on his face but levity in his voice.
“You can’t lose the passion. You can’t ever take this for granted.”