May 23, 2022

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Sports Really Satisfies

The Den at Anthony’s, a new sports ‘tavern’ in Guilford, not just a bar

GUILFORD — The COVID pandemic had one bright spot for two Guilford sports dads: the best friends recently opened The Den at Anthony’s, an upscale sports tavern, partly because of it.

But The Den is not a sports bar, they stressed.

The tavern has an old-timey vibe with distressed woodwork and vintage-style fixtures, but features all the modern amenities of a sports bar — seven TVs, a state-of-the-art sound system and special lighting effects. (The bar lights up blue for Yankees games and red for the Red Sox.)

Anthony’s owner Pete Ciocca had to improvise fast in 2020 when he shuttered the long-standing Italian restaurant and banquet hall in the first pandemic shutdown.

First Ciocca opened a takeout pizza place on one side of the building. Several months later, he leased the other half to his best buddy, Jim Petonito, who moved his business, CMI Equipment and Landscape Supply, to Guilford from North Haven.

The pair got the idea for a sports tavern more than a year later and have been doing all the remodeling themselves since January — building tables from raw-edged lumber as well as constructing booths, refinishing woodwork and adding a brick wall behind the bar. They worked on the place right up to opening earlier this week.

They wanted it to be a welcoming place not only for sports fans and local teams, but a comfortable place for families to grab a bite and a popular spot for lunch or dinner.

It was friendship that brought the two business owners together under one roof.

Petonito decided to move his landscaping business to the restaurant because of his friendship with Ciocca and “our sons are best friends. I coached his son in baseball for years.”

Ciocca had suggested, he said, “‘Why don’t you move into my banquet hall since the virus forced us to close down.’”

And that’s how the idea of The Den was born.

With the two businesses on each end of the sprawling former restaurant, the pair wondered what to do with large, vacant space in the middle.

The guys moved the massive, original bar from the old Anthony’s into the empty space and that cinched it.

The two self-admitted “sports nuts” tossed ideas back and forth: “Why don’t we just open this up and make it a sports bar?” Petonito recalled with a grin. “And Pete said, ‘I’ll do you one better and let’s make it a sports tavern.’”

What’s the difference between the two?

“People look inside this place and they see the brick and they see the distressed wood and all the tables we’re building and the televisions,” and they’ll say, “‘Wow — that’s not a sports bar — that’s a really nice place I want to come visit and have dinner or lunch,’” Petonito said.

“At a sports bar you get burgers, wings and nachos and that’s about it,” he added.

“We want to welcome everybody,” Petonito said.

Ciocca interjected, “Not just the guys.”

Petonito agreed, “We don’t want people thinking this is going to be a rowdy place where young guys are yelling and screaming. It’s open for the ladies, it’s open for families, for older people,” he said. “That’s why it’s a tavern.”

TVs are mounted above the few booths on the side for those who want to catch up on a game, Ciocca said, “and if they want to put on a soap opera they can watch that.”

“We can have movies going on,” Petonito added. “We can have television, we can have news, we can have sporting events.”

To add to their entertainment offerings there will be karaoke and trivia nights at the tavern.

And when the pair says they welcome “everyone,” they include families, sports fans and local sports teams and non-fans.

They also aim to have something for everyone with their food and drink offerings. There are seven beers on tap, including local microbrews to please beer drinkers. A specialty cocktail menu features a twist on traditional drinks, including an espresso martini, a ginger grapefruit sour and a “misfit Manhattan” both made with small batch whiskeys. Seltzers, soft drinks and cappuccino made to order also are available.

Fresh seasonal food will be served, with new takes on standard bar food — the juicy house burger called “The Tavern” is served on Texas Toast drizzled with barbecue sauce and topped with caramelized onions and cheddar cheese. There are cheeseburger tot nachos “fully loaded” — made with crispy tater tots and black angus ground beef — and chicken wings are offered five different ways.

To tempt the healthful eater, there is a vegetarian chili and a salmon quinoa bowl.

And there are fresh twists on Italian fare — such as the “Eggplant Tower” with fresh mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil and marinara, and a gnocchi bowl with applewood smoked bacon and fresh spinach in a creamy Parmesan sauce.

The gnocchi dish, made with potato-based pasta, is a light dish, unlike the heavier traditional Italian version served with red sauce, Petonito said.

“It’s got candied bacon — to me that’s one of our best,” he described.

“It’s not that giant dish of pasta,” Ciocca added.

“We’re trying to do everything from a fresh perspective — not greasy,” said Ciocca. The food will be “a step above a greasy tavern-type deal,” he said. “There will be seasonal specials, local. We’re going to do personal pizzas.”

The gourmet pizzas range from mashed potato, Buffalo shrimp, Margherita, to a classic meat lovers red pizza as well as other fresh-made pies.

Ciocca stressed, however, there will be no crossover from the takeout pizza operation next door. Tavern customers may not order a takeout pizza from one side and eat it in the restaurant.

The takeout business still will offer “the traditional cooking we do,” popular Italian dishes, party trays and catering, Ciocca said.

Before the tavern officially opened, the local reviews were good. The pals did a soft opening with local high school sports teams and their parents.

“We’ve had a couple of soft openings with friends and everybody’s been floored with the quality of the food,” Petonito said.

The Guilford High School hockey team, Petonito said, “were all over that stuff. Kids loved the space.”

“One girl is a breakfast aficionado — so the parents started getting into it — ‘Wow bacon and egg and cheese pizza,’” Petonito said.

Tom Epke, another Guilford sports dad, enjoyed the house burger at The Den.

“It was just one of the best burgers I’ve ever had,” said Epke. “Like a steamed burger out of New Haven – just a big, thick, juicy burger. I think they were grilled like on griddle.”

Epke also like the feel of the place: “The vibe itself is really neat. I like the theme of the den with the Grizzlies [Guilford’s team mascot].

“It makes you feel like you’re at an old tavern but with new fixtures and this neat lighting and the bar is amazing,” he said.

“We’re excited as a family,” Epke said. “That could be our new regular — no doubt.”

“I have two kids they play ice hockey, field hockey, lacrosse,” he said. “It’s a great location — you get off the field you can run over there.”

The Den at Anthony’s, 2392 Boston Post Road, Guilford; website: thedenatanthonys.com; phone: 203-453-4020.