Carmen Anthony Vacalebre had already established a successful fast-food business in the 1970s and 1980s with his Me Ma and Arby's franchises. But he wanted to step it up by opening a New York City-style steakhouse, the kind he liked to frequent.
He wanted a place that would rate up there with such red-meat restaurant icons as Del Friscos, Lugers, Keens and Sparks — clubby, intimate eateries with great wines and even better steaks. Every day he passed a Ponderosa Steakhouse at 496 Chase Ave., a few blocks from his Waterbury office. When the place closed in the mid '90s, Vacalebre decided to make his business dream come true.
Next month, Vacalebre will celebrate the 15th anniversary of his flagship restaurant, Carmen Anthony Steakhouse of Waterbury.
"It was May 6, 1996, that we opened the doors," say Vacalebre of the upscale restaurant on one of Waterbury's main strips. "It is a classic, and classic is always in style."
From its deep maroon and forest-green décor to the linen-topped dining room tables and Naugahyde booths, it's a place oozing with appeal.
"I told the decorators I wanted a place that felt just like a 40-year-old New York City steakhouse," said Vacalebre, pointing out details like carved dark wood panels, oversized black-and-white pictures of the Rat Pack and other memorabilia usually associated with steakhouses. A huge hardwood bar with a life-size carved Indian on one side and mood-making lighting fixtures enhance the swanky atmosphere while attentive staff, many of whom have been at the restaurant since it opened, add a personal touch.
The pièce de résistance, decoratively speaking, are the rows and rows of celebrity caricatures that grace the walls, pen drawings that are duplicates of those that hang in Sardi's.
Vacalebre ended up with the caricatures, which hung in the former 1249 Restaurant in Waterbury, by buying a house.
"Moe [Allegrini] always said they would never hang anywhere but in his own restaurant," Vacalebre explains. "When he retired, he put his house up for sale, and I was interested in buying it. I said I'd buy the house if he would sell me the caricatures, too, so the joke is I bought the prints, and he threw the house in as part of the deal."
But a good steakhouse cannot succeed on looks alone. Vacalebre, a Waterbury native, knows he is a businessman, not a chef, and is tenacious about making sure his Waterbury restaurant, along with the four others that followed, are well known for the food.
While three of the Carmen Anthony restaurants — in Avon, Woodbury and Wethersfield — are billed as fish houses, his newest place in New Haven and his oldest in Waterbury spotlight steak, from the simple to the sophisticated. Filet mignon, porterhouse, rib eye and New York strip (all 21-day aged Angus beef steaks), are the core of the menu. There also are "Simply Grilled Steaks" for the purist and specialty steak dishes, including Steak Diane, twin petite filet mignons with artichoke hearts and a brandy demi-glace; and Steak Florentine, an 8-ounce filet with garlic and herbs and served over sautéed spinach.
Vacalebre, part of a close-knit Italian family, has brought to his restaurants some recipes from home, including the "minestra," a hearty "peasant" soup made of savoy cabbage, sausage, potatoes and cannellini beans in chicken broth.
"I remember sitting at home at the kitchen table when I was a kid and having minestra," says Vacalebre. "People love it."
But even at his steak houses, it's not just about steak. Seafood offerings include Chilean Sea Bass Calabrese; assorted pasta dishes, including cavatelli with sausage and broccoli; Lobster Fra Diavio with Maine lobster and a spicy red sauce served over linguini; and the restaurant's award-winning potato-encrusted crab cakes. And if you still have room, don't miss the appropriately nicknamed "moan-inducing" white- and dark-chocolate bread pudding, served with warm chocolate and Irish crème sauces.
Carmen Anthony serves lunch and dinner. Lunch entrees range from $9.95 to $16.95, with sandwiches and salads also available. Dinner entrees range from $17.95 to $39.95, with lighter fare including its famous $19.95 hot lobster roll and $13.95 classic steakhouse burgers.
A past chairman of the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and director of the National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation, Vacalebre is proud of his homegrown business success and appreciative of the dozens of "best of" awards his places have garnered.
But his restaurants, like others, have been forced to weather the economic downturn of recent years.
"The past three years have been hell. It's been challenging, but we have managed," said Vacalebre, who is offering a variety of $19.96 dinner specials as part of the Waterbury location's celebration.
Vacalebre has no favorite among his five restaurants, but Waterbury is where he eats lunch every day. He travels to each of the restaurants every Saturday to meet customers and make sure the houses are delivering impeccable food and top-shelf service
"The 15 years have gone by so quickly," he says. "I appreciate the customers who come to my restaurants. It's my name on the door, and the one thing I want to do is put out really good food in a comfortable atmosphere. Eating out should be a quality experience."
Information: 203-757-3040 or http://www.carmenanthony.com.
>>At Michael Christopher's, 504 N. Main St., Bristol , owner and chef Mike Moreau will serve Easter brunch and special dinner choices, including rosemary-garlic leg of lamb, tangerine-mustard-glazed ham and peppercorn-crusted stuffed filet mignon. Reservations: 860-261-5035.
>>Prospect Café, 345 Prospect Ave., West Hartford, is featuring an Easter brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. with eggs, pancakes, home fries, roast leg of lamb, Virginia ham and stuffed filet of sole. Cost is $19.95 for adults, $12.95 for children under 12, plus tax and tip. Reservations: 860-523-8069.
>>Infinity Bistro on Route 44 in Norfolk is offering an a la carte Easter brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations: 860-542-5531.
>>The Goodspeed theater and Gelston House restaurant on Main Street in East Haddam are offering an Easter brunch and theater ticket special. The package includes brunch beginning at 11:30 a.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee of George and Ira Gershwin's "My One and Only." Cost is $69 for adults, $14 for children 12 and younger. Reservations: 860-873-8668.
>>The Bee & Thistle Inn & Spa, 100 Lyme St., Old Lyme, is serving Easter dinner at 11:30 a.m., noon and 2 and 2:30 p.m. Menu details: http://www.beeandthistleinn.com. Reservations: 860-434-1667.
>>For youngsters, the Market At Hartford21 will have its first "Breakfast With the Bunny" on Saturday. An Easter egg hunt and meet-and-greet with Peter Cottontail is planned at the market, 230 Asylum St., from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Complimentary coffee and breakfast-treat samples, as well as Easter treats including chocolate dipped Oreos, will be served. Information: 860-560-2121.
>>Confetti!, 393 Farmington Ave., Plainville, hosts a Greek night the last Thursday of April, May and June. Greek language lessons, Greek dancing and a special $25 per person fixed-price dinner are featured beginning at 6:30 p.m. Menu items include marithes, spanakopita tzatsiki and souzoukakia. Reservations: 860-793-8809.
>>Papacelle, 152 Simsbury Road, hosts a "Time for Me" ladies night fundraiser May 3 to benefit the Connecticut Children's Hospital. The event, from 5 to 8 p.m., will include a $35-per-person dinner and feature a variety of vendors and give-aways. Dinner reservations are required: 860-269-3121 or http://www.papacelle.com.
>>The 2011 New England Regional Chili Cookoff will be May 7 at Pleasant View, 452 South Road, in Somers. The signature cook-off is sanctioned and governed by the International Child Society. Winners in the New England competition will move on to the World Championships in Manchester, N.H., later this year.
Admission to the cookoff is $5 and two canned items that will be donated to "Champs Place" food pantry. Those under 5 and over 70 are admitted free. Live entertainment is also featured. Information: http://www.chilict.com
>>Bobby Flay's Bar Americain at Mohegan Sun is serving a Sunday a la carte brunch through Labor Day from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 860-862-8000 for reservations.
Beer, Wine Events
>>Carmen Anthony Steakhouse of Waterbury hosts a "Women& Wine" dinner May 11 from 6 to 9 p.m. The event, for women only, will feature Tranchero wines. Cost is $65 plus tax and tip. Reservations: 203-757-3040.
>>Max's Oyster Bar, 964 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, hosts a Max's Craft Beer dinner on May 2. A six-course dinner presented by executive chef Scott Miller and Brendan McLane of Oskar Blues Brewing will be paired with beers. Cost is $75. Reservations: 860-236-6299 or http://www.maxoysterbar.com.
>>The Firebox, 539 Broad St., Hartford, hosts a "Hop n Hog Dinner" May 1 at 6 p.m. The family style three-course dinner will feature a Connecticut-raised suckling pig and craft beers. Tickets are $55 plus tax and tip. Information: 860-246-1222 or http://www.billingsforgeworks.com.
>>Send restaurant news at least 10 days before publication to MaryEllen Fillo at email@example.com, 860-241-3717 (phone), 860-520-6927 (fax) or in care of The Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times