Anton’s Pasta Bar is a Burnaby Heights landmark, famous for its enormous portions and the long lineups on the sidewalk outside.
The Italian restaurant was founded in 1989 by Antonio "Tony" Mauro. Hailing from Calabria, what would be the toe of the boot of Italy, Antonio spent his youth in the post-war era, selling wine. The east wall of Anton’s is decorated with framed pictures of young Antonio and his world, looking like stills from Bicycle Thieves and other Italian post-war films.
Antonio’s father emigrated to Canada before him. Antonio followed, taking the eleven-day boat trip from Naples to Halifax, followed by a six-day train ride to Vancouver. "I grew up in Chinatown, because Chinatown and Little Italy were side by side," he said in an interview recorded by UBC students. "I went to new Canadians class on Seymour street. I was learning Chinese instead of English, because in my class they were all Chinese boys, Cantonese. Nobody spoke English."
The west wall of Anton’s displays pictures of his early life in 1950s and 1960s Vancouver, running with his own "rat pack". While Vancouver’s Chinatown grew, the Italian immigrant community moved east. After working in various restaurants, Antonio started his own.
This was going to be called ‘Antonio’s’ because my name’s Antonio. But there was another restaurant called Antonio. We couldn’t use it. A lot of people used to call me Anton for short.
At the beginning, Anton’s had only a limited menu. "I did all my cooking, I did all my own fresh pasta, right from the start. I did the cleaning, I did everything. When I first started there was a very small menu, only three or four dishes," Antonio recalls. "I’d never taken cooking classes or anything. I knew how to cook, from my mama or my dad. We all knew how to cook in my family. But cooking is an art. You’ve got to be creative. It doesn’t matter what you do in life, but you have to like what you do."
Anton’s assistant general manager, Tony Obuck, says he views Antonio as a father figure. "I was teaching karate next door when the owner went by, and he introduced himself and said he was opening up a restaurant next door, and would I like a position in the restaurant?" he says. "I had just finished working at Expo 86 in the food department, so I thought this would be a stepping stone. It was all downhill, or uphill, from there." He became Anton’s first bartender.
After six years at Anton’s, Tony left to become a corrections officer, and worked in a variety of different security related jobs, including handling dogs for the RCMP. "The owner gave me a call about 11 years ago and asked me to give up my other two jobs, come back here and run the place." He says that his experiences in security, "prepared me for this."
While Anton’s menu has expanded greatly over the decades, growing to over a hundred dishes, it’s décor hasn’t changed. Tony says only this year do they plan to redecorate. "Nothing has changed here in thirty years. The paint, the tables, the cutlery. This year we’ve been able to make some changes for the very first time. We’re hoping in the summer to finish painting the restaurant."
The lack of change is because,
Restaurant owners are very, very superstitious people, one of the most superstitious in the world. To take down an award from Burnaby from last year and replace it with an identical new award dated this year, becomes very difficult for him to deal with. Some people just can’t deal with change.
The restaurant and hospitality business has changed in recent years, and Tony knows he has to manage Anton’s online presence. "We’re on page one, line one of Google. When you Google ‘Italian restaurants in Vancouver’ we come up instantly on the first couple of lines. It’s quite an honor. That’s why this place is always so busy."
The down side is that negative reviews, even posted with the customer is still at the table, can have a disproportionate impact. Tony is very proactive about responding to reviews.
I’ve got several alerts on my phone, like Trip Advisor and Yelp. Those actually beep me when a customer has just put up a review about Anton’s. We can have people sitting at their chair saying that they don’t like the service that they’re getting, while the server is right there. It can be kind of confrontational. Usually we just downplay it.
Anton’s is also active in the community. Every Christmas Eve, they do a free dinner for people from the Downtown Eastside, and during the spring Burnaby Heights Parade, they close down and serve chicken cacciatore outside, with the proceeds donated to Burnaby Family Life.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the massive portions served.
If they finish off the plate, they get a free pen. It’s quite a competition for a lot of people.
Tony’s recommended dish, the linguine con polpette, proved to be an intimidatingly large serving of linguine, red sauce and meatballs. The pasta had the light texture that comes from being made fresh, springy without being rubbery. The sauce was just on the edge of being tart, producing more subtle flavors, and the meatballs were a savory delight on their own. Unless you’re splitting the meal or carbo-loading before a marathon, you’ll probably take at least half the plate home with you.
On the way out, Tony provided helpful tips on how to serve the leftovers. "The pasta is too fresh to be microwaved without drying out," he said; "better to warm up some tomato sauce or juice on low heat and then heat up the pasta in that, which keeps it fresh."