Entrepreneurs serve up three new restaurants

  • 2000-02-03
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Salvatore Antonio Meschino opened Da Antonio III last November on picturesque and bustling Pilies street, his third pizzeria in Vilnius.

"It's the busiest pedestrian street in the city so it just makes sense to have a pizzeria here," said Meschino. "I heard that the space was on the market and I just grabbed it. There is no such thing as a tourist who comes to Vilnius and doesn't walk down Pilies at least once," he said. He knows this because his wife works at Benetton down the block, a company which sites its stores according to foot traffic - at least 2,000 people passing at 2 p.m.

"I also made sure to install large floor-to-ceiling windows so that customers can watch the street scene from inside," Meschino said proudly.

Born of Italian parents, Meschino grew up in Australia where his father ran two Italian restaurants. He came to Lithuania as a Martini importer in 1991. He is also the honorary consul for Australia, working under the direction of the embassy in Stockholm and is here to help Australian travelers in distress; he cannot issue visas or passes. Career diplomats are not allowed to operate businesses, while honorary ones are exempt from this. He speaks Lithuanian quite fluently and has two children with his Lithuanian wife.

For Meschino, the hospitality business is in his blood.

"My father's restaurant experience has helped me tremendously. He has one golden rule. Don't worry about income, just make sure you serve the best possible food and the customers and income will follow," he said. "We make as much as we can from scratch. I do not believe in microwaves or freezers. Lasagna is made in the morning and reheated later. Everything else is made when ordered.

Meschino uses local produce, flour and salami. He imports prosciutto and parmesan cheese.

"We can't get them here. In an effort to protect Lithuanian cheese producers, the government slaps huge customs on imported cheese making it very expensive. Parmesan requires a minimum 16 months of aging which is too much of an investment for local producers. I'm the only person to import it as I'm willing to bear the cost in order to provide it. I hope that when we're an European Union country, this will no longer be a problem. We also import fresh basil in winter to make pesto as the leaves turn black in storage," explained Meschino.

Da Antionio's corporate chef, Ignazio Rosa, is a five-time world champion pizza chef. He holds the records for size and speed. At the championships in Las Vegas recently he tossed a pizza three-and-a-half meters wide. He can also make a standard sized twenty-eight centimeter pizza in fourteen seconds. This includes spreading the tomato sauce evenly without allowing it to overlap the borders.

Meschino emphasized that Rosa's talent is not just window dressing. "Pizza tossing acrobatics are not just for show but an important part of the preparation as the dough gets stretched and then contracts again," said Meschino.

Meschino doesn't hold with machine-made or fruity dough.

"My restaurants are traditional Italian restaurants. There are a lot of new pizzerias opening here all the time. The dough is usually prepared by machine and they go in for all kinds of outlandish recipes that include pineapples and bananas," he said. That's not my style. Italian cuisine is all I know."

Da Antonio's interior is understated and tasteful. The large windows make it bright and cheerful. Mount Vesuvius, in Naples, the pizza capital of the world, is painted on one wall.

Pizza is popular in Vilnius.

"Pizza places are popping up everywhere in the city," said Lara Belonogoff, editor-in-chief of tourist guide Vilnius in Your Pocket which lists 13 pizza dispensaries. "Overall, it's a good thing. More competition means better pizza and lower prices. I don't see the pizzeria trend dying in the near future."

Foreigners in Vilnius will appreciate the fact that Da Antonio's opens for breakfast at 7.30 a.m. offering a simple menu of omelets and

Italian-style breakfast.

"Very few restaurants in this city open for breakfast as it's just not part of the culture here. People breakfast at home. We are slowly beginning to see this change. The international breakfast meeting trend is slowly beginning to make its way here.

Da Antonio's offers a large selection of familiar pizzas in three sizes ranging in price from 13 to 27 litas (roughly $3 to $7).

His cafe

Just up the street from Da Antonio's on Boksto is the newly opened Mano Kavine or simply My Cafe. It's owner, Aurimas Alisauskas, bought the space with funds from a settlement for a car accident he suffered in Poland. With the help of friends and relatives he gutted it completely and re-built it over a four-year period during time away from his day job.

Alisauskas pooh-poohs any talk of heroics.

"I'm really not interested in discussing this," Alisauskas said. "The local press made a big deal about it when I opened. The articles made it seem like a good idea to get into a car accident so that you could earn money to open a restaurant. Absolutely ridiculous. They didn't write about the cafe itself which is all I'm prepared to discuss."

Although centrally located, Boksto is a narrow Old Town street that has few storefronts and seems quite deserted.

"Some people thought it risky to open a cafe at this location. But now people have a reason to walk down Boksto," said Alisauskas.

Indeed, at 6 p.m., it was packed and people were entering and leaving with dejected looks as no seating was available. Alisauskas showed a customer survey that he had done recently.

"I have never advertised since opening. Eighty percent of customers heard about this cafe by word of mouth and 67 percent don't want me to advertise as they feel there aren't enough seats and would prefer that it remain a secret," Alisauskas said.

Food and alcohol prices are very reasonable. A pint of Klaipeda brewed Svyturys beer is only four litas ($1).

The restaurant has a smart modern interior and is a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon sipping tea with friends. Although they serve coffee, Alisauskas drinks only tea and offers a selection of fifteen exotic teas from around the world including mate from South America. He wants to double this number and also offer his own hand-blended teas. The tea comes in a generously-sized metal pot and is served with biscuits, unlike at most Vilnius restaurants which bring one only a cup of hot water and a tea bag.

In contrast to its modern interior, Mano Kavine offers the traditional Lithuanian fare of meat-centered dishes with large servings of vegetables and side dishes.

"I offer people value in a meal. I don't go exotic as I just want to do the basics right and give people a generous serving of something that is well prepared," said Alisauskas. "Too many restaurants here try to offer a fancy menu, but this often doesn't work as those dishes are easy to screw up. Also, we are a northern country and it's my belief that hearty meat, potato and vegetable dishes are an essential part of a person's diet here."

A steaming serving of Chicken Kiev for 12 litas ($3) arrived quickly and is accompanied by an unsparing serving of French fries and cabbage salad.

Secure dining

A visit to the newly renovated Vandens Malunas (or Water Mill) on Verkiu street, a fifteen-minute cab ride from the city center, confirms that décor and food quality do not always concur in Vilnius. Located in a park-like setting, it actually was formerly a water mill. The owners have obviously invested some serious money in converting it to a restaurant and they have done a beautiful job. The inside reveals posts and beams, solid wood furniture, rustic lighting and a wonderful collection of photographs of old farmsteads and architects plans. But don't count on the wait staff to greet you or bring you a menu with any degree of rapidity - just help yourself.

An order of salted salmon for 10 litas arrived straight out of the freezer and was covered in frosty ice crystals. When asked if it could be replaced, a polite "maybe" was offered. Ten minutes later a new plate arrived with salmon that had obviously been rinsed with hot water to make it more palatable - it was still frozen on the inside. Thankfully, they didn't skimp on the dinner rolls and butter. Loud pop music played obtrusively in the background which didn't agree with the rural theme.

Strangely, a sign is posted outside the front door with a picture of a pistol that reads, "Achtung! Your stay with us is being safeguarded by the Lidiva quick response team." Far from making the visitor feel comfortable, one would expect a gang of masked bandits to barge through the front door at any moment. All in all, an unusual dining experience.