When Chrissy Antenucci sends out the invitation to her pop-up dinners at her restaurant The Wheel, it takes less than ten minutes for them to fill up. Diners lucky enough to RSVP in time are treated to a four-course dinner of antipasti, two pasta entrees, and dessert plus Antenucci’s delectable bread and focaccia. Guests bring their own beverages. Cost: a suggested price of $55.
“I’m very flattered and grateful for the interest and support,” she says as she pulls out pizzas from her oven.
She plans to continue with this system as long as she can. There were just three dinners in January because Antenucci and her crew are busy cooking for private dinners at her location, lately averaging three a week.
She started the pop-ups in 2016 because construction on the other side of her place, the market/takeout, was taking longer than she expected. As the dinners grew in popularity, so did the e-mail list, which currently has about 1,800 names on it. She also maintains an Instagram feed with photos of her dishes accompanied by lyrics to Grateful Dead songs. (Note the name of the restaurant: “The Wheel is turning and you can’t slow down …” )
The main reason for the success is obvious: it’s the great food, the fresh, made-by-hand bread, pasta, sauces, pizza, everything.
“I am obsessed with cooking by hand,” Antenucci says. “All of our bread and pizza dough is hand-mixed every day. Our pastas are handmade with flour from Italy and local eggs.”
The entrees are seasonal, using local ingredients. Right now, she’s serving kale and mascarpone lasagna, and stuffed peppers with housemade sausage, spinach, and pecorino. In the takeout area, there are loaves of country Italian and sourdough bread, sandwiches made with focaccia, and salads and pasta entrees to go.
“Cooking with the seasons makes sense, cooking local is the best thing for the environment,” she says.
Antenucci knows a work of art when she sees one.
Ron Miller and his wife Julie went to the pop-up dinners early on. They live in the neighborhood and struck up a conversation one day when they walked past the restaurant and saw Antenucci working outside. They were part of the first groups to enjoy the dinners.
“It’s better than any place we’ve ever eaten,” Ron says. “We love her food. It’s fantastic.”
In addition to the food, they praised Antenucci for the décor inside, which includes all sorts of copper pans and kitchen knickknacks. In the takeout area, Antenucci has her grandmother’s recipe book on display.
“We’re thrilled for her success,” he continues.
Upon arriving for a dinner, guests are greeted with a glass of Prosecco and then seated at a long harvest table. Antenucci then plates each course at a counter in front. Cynthia and Tim McCarthy have attended a dinner and frequent the takeout.
“The pasta is to die for,” Cynthia said. “We’ve had cannelloni, wonderful salads, pizza, and her tomato bread. It’s awfully, awfully good.”
The tomato bread she’s referring to is thick-crust pizza that sort of resembles focaccia. It’s topped with tomatoes, oregano, and olive oil, and is only available only for pre-order on Thursdays through Saturdays.
Customer Janice Revetta recently ordered the rolled lasagna and a chocolate mousse desert to take home.
“The (lasagna) had lots of delicious sauce for dipping with their homemade bread,” she says. “The desert was nice and rich with a dollop of fresh whipped cream on top. Everything was delicious and the staff was super friendly.”
Revetta also dug the Grateful Dead vibe. “It’s a great environment.”
Antenucci also bakes a selection of single-serving pizzas and will even have a “pizza party” every so often, staying open a little later.
“I’ve always wanted to open a pizza parlor,” she says as she tops a small pizza then slides it in the oven. The pizzas are a nice treat for those on the list who didn’t make the dinner cut-off.
Antenucci’s roots come from Lucca in Tuscany and Barrea in Abruzzo, in the province of L’Aquila. She’s been to Barrea and the cuisine there was her favorite.
“I grew up in a food family,” she says. “We always had big Italian Sunday dinners.”
The Sunday menu was pasta with red sauce. Tomato-braised pork ribs were her favorite dish. Her grandmother had a cooking show in Cincinnati in the 1950s called “The Kitchen Show,” and her grandfather owned a produce market where he also sold Italian foods.
Antenucci trained in some of Manhattan’s and San Francisco’s finest restaurants. Her passion has always been fresh pasta. She says her two years at Quince Restaurant in San Francisco was exactly the culinary boot camp she was looking for. She worked another five years as a private chef in Silicon Valley.
Now she’s back in Cincinnati, doing her part to keep Italian cooking traditions alive.
“Tradition has been replaced with fast food. I cook this way because I love to cook this way … I am very grateful that there are so many people who come to The Wheel and appreciate what we do.”
“The passion and care that goes in to our product comes through in the food and is felt throughout the whole dining experience. That is the hope anyway. I love feeding people and I appreciate every person that has chosen to come to The Wheel,” she says. “Providing a unique experience and having the opportunity to see our customers enjoy themselves is what make this so special.”
When you go: The Wheel Oakley, 3805 Brotherton Road, Cincinnati 45209, 513-271-0291
Carryout Hours: Wed.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Saturdays noon–4 p.m.
To get the pop-up dinner invitations, get on the email list.