Woody's Piazza Bar a perfect melding of tradition, innovation
If anyone was to the restaurant business born, it probably would be brothers Greg and Dan Antonelli, owners of the Antonelli Event Center in Irwin, which houses banquet facilities, Woody's Piazza Bar and Ristorante and Emidio's Bistro.
Their grandfather, Guerino Emidio Antonelli, was a cook in the Italian army during World War I. After emigrating to the United States, Guerino opened an Italian restaurant in Glassport in the 1930s.
Their grandfather and father opened Woody's Restaurant in McKeesport in the 1960s, where the brothers pitched in, doing whatever was needed. The business expanded to include eight pizza shops, but now has been scaled back to a catering business.
They opened the event center about three years ago in the building formerly occupied by Pluma Restaurant, and Woody's and the bistro were added about two years ago. Greg oversees operations there, while Dan takes care of the McKeesport side of things.
The decor at Woody's is simple but elegant, with beige walls, black-painted furniture and white linens on the tables.
Six large screens surround the large rectangular bar, perfect for enjoying the snack menu available on Steeler Sundays.
Woody's menu is built around grandpa's recipes, but Greg says they aren't resting on those old laurels — or rather, the basil and oregano.
“Our sauce recipe was created by our grandfather, and we've been selling it for 60 years,” he says. “We use the old-world recipes but with a new twist. I call it ‘a taste of new tradition.'”
Every menu item is housemade and ingredients are locally sourced when possible.
“We try to stay seasonal and source local products,” Greg says. “It's good for the economy, good for everybody.”
From the “Homemade Pastas & Parms” section of Woody's menu, Greg says, the made-from-scratch gnocchi ($11.99) is a customer favorite. Pastas are served with bread, choice of sauce and either salad or wedding soup.
That soup also garners raves, he says.
From the grill, the filet mignon ($19.99 or $24.99) and New York strip steak ($25.99) are popular, though choices include salmon, pork chops, lamb lollipops and chicken breast.
On a recent visit, we deferred to Greg's recommendations and tried the wheel of provolone ($7) and Sicilian spring rolls ($8.99) from the antipasti selections.
“Those are the top-sellers of our appetizers,” says chef Chris Smith, who trained under noted chefs Bill Fuller and Mark Henry and previously worked around the area at Soba, the Wooden Nickel and Jacktown Ride and Hunt Club.
“Greg was actually a customer of mine at Jacktown,” Smith says.
The provolone was lightly breaded and deep-fried, resulting in the thinnest, crispest crust imaginable, fairly floating in a pool of grandpa's homemade sauce.
The spring rolls were a revelation, a perfect illustration of something old transformed. Ground spicy Italian sausage and three cheeses are rolled into flour tortillas and deep fried, again arriving with the homemade sauce.
A deft hand at the deep-fryer resulted in a lightly browned shell around the abundant, succulent filling with not a drop of grease evident. From now on, keep your puny rolls with their meager shreds of carrot and cabbage and give me the hearty Sicilian version.
For entrees, we had the aforementioned filet and a shrimp scampi, served over angel hair pasta and garnished with fresh spinach and diced tomatoes.
The filet came surrounded by roasted redskin potatoes, mixed green and yellow beans and a medley of sauteed onions, mushrooms and green peppers, enough to sate two healthy appetites. Cooked medium (just the way I like it), it was nonetheless flavorful and almost fork-tender with just a light char.
Though there wasn't time or room for dessert, Greg says one customer favorite is the banana split cheesecake, and there's also a seasonal apple dumpling with cinnamon toast ice cream, available now.
Woody's also offers specials like all-you-can-eat pasta on Tuesdays, date night with live music on Wednesdays, and barbecue on Thursdays.
For lunch or a lighter meal, there are hand-tossed pizzas ($10.99-$14.99 for a 12-inch six-cut pie) with various toppings and specialty hoagies and sandwiches.
For a quick in-and-out meal from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, Greg recommends a stop at the bistro for soups, salads, sandwiches, four-cut pizzas and specials like stuffed cabbage that change every two weeks.
“It's all scratch cooking in the bistro, too,” he says.