Home away from Rome: Best friends travel long distance to open restaurant together

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 10:49 AM

Behind every good story is a great story, and the story behind Antonia’s restaurant in Hillsborough is about good friends becoming great friends.
It was a fifth birthday party for Claudia Salvadore in the city of Rome. Her parents invited guests to attend the party and among those invited was Antonia Berto. Their friendship grew and throughout all of the destinations in their respective lives, they grew and maintained a connection. Perhaps it is a necessity that every restaurant has a corner booth where friends grow and stories are told. Sitting with Claudia and Antonia in the corner booth of their mutually owned restaurant, Antonia’s, I could not help but think how special a friendship they share, from a 5-year-old’s birthday party to serving regional Italian food in Hillsborough.
The story of these two entrepreneurs is about a passion for food and an interest in community. Along with Antonia’s husband and business partner, Phillip Smith, who is not from Italy but from the state of Wisconsin, these three partners operate their very successful restaurant from the corner of King Street and Churton Street in Hillsborough.
“I have a passion for food and community,” says Claudia. Her accent is convincing and her dialect somewhat romantic and you are convinced that what she says about food and community comes from great Italian ingredients. Claudia has traveled the world and has worked in various roles of customer service including locally with Weaver Street Market and Southern Season. “I love people and I love seeing their delight when they touch something tangible,” says Claudia.
For Antonia, owning a restaurant was not necessarily a life dream; instead it became her life upon falling in love with Phillip, a trained chef. Prior to locating Antonia’s in Hillsborough, the original Antonia’s served food and great culture from Key West.
“I quit my job in New York and moved to Key West where I worked with Antonia and Phillip,” says Claudia of how she became partners in business with her best friend.
From the original restaurant, the partners would serve locally based food, especially seafood, and their success was built around distinguished food served under the name Antonia’s. “People believe that Italian food is complicated. However, it is very simple; use quality ingredients and use fresh foods,” says Claudia. The original restaurant burned in 1995 and upon relocating to Bethesda, Md., the opportunity presented for the trio to become restaurant owners again, this time in Hillsborough. “It all happened so quickly. I had a birthday dinner at the former restaurant in this space and soon after, the sale was complete,” says Claudia.
Immediately, their work began with transforming the space into a restaurant that resembled the direction the new Antonia’s would take. “The food here is very creative and we strive to be part of the community of customers that come here to eat,” says Claudia. The restaurant offers an ambience that is formal with soothing décor and an evening scene that spills over from the windows outside. “There is something magical about owning a restaurant and seeing it come to life,” says Claudia. Bringing the restaurant to life is not just the work and efforts of one person. For this eatery, the business remains functional because a husband, wife and best friend bring diverse work skills to the table. “Phillip is a marvelous chef,” says Antonia. “He is amazing,” says Claudia.
Yet, of each other, the two friends and business partners are quick to identify that though they share the same belief in work ethic, it takes different skills to make this type of business operate.
“Claudia is very easy to get along with and I can be a pain in the neck, sometimes,” says Antonia, who is laughing while saying this.
Antonia studied psychology at the University of Rome and recognizes that Claudia has a gift with caring for the customer. Of Antonia, Claudia says, “She is very detail-oriented and she is also very creative; she is not afraid in the kitchen.” Together, the two acknowledge that they have each other’s support and that they trust the other to compensate when the other might be struggling.
“This is our life; this is what we do,” says Claudia.
For these two restaurant partners, serving food in Hillsborough is like serving food at home. “This is home now,” says Claudia.
Of their individual favorite foods, Antonia is partial to the fresh pasta and seafood that is prepared here. Claudia also admits the pasta is her favorite, but says, “I love calamari any way that it is prepared.”
From this corner booth, the conversation with Antonia and Claudia ebbed and flowed from paths in life to the necessity of having quality food served in their restaurant. Granted, not every day as a business partner with a best friend is going to be ice cream and cake. However, one can imagine what that fifth birthday party might have been like when two strangers were introduced and became friends.
While the ambience and food are remarkable here, witnessing the appreciation two friends have for each other is what makes Antonia’s special. Some of the menu items might be difficult to pronounce. Special entrees might bend the rules and creativity may serve as the key ingredient. However, these two friends and business partners believe that food and community and passion are the keys to their success.
It must have been a good birthday party. 
Do you have a feature story idea? Contact Jason Hawkins at hawkinsoutdoors@msn.com.