Chrissy Antenucci: For the Love of Pasta

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When we arrived at The Wheel, Chrissy Antenucci was spreading graham cracker batter into a sheet pan. You’re likely to find her cooking any time you stop by her carryout spot in Oakley, which is also the hub for private dinners a few times a month. The pop-up dinners offer 20 people the chance to enjoy five made-from-scratch courses, with a mix of seasonal vegetables, handmade pasta and bread, and dessert. After stints at some of the country’s finest restaurants, Antenucci has returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, where she’s creating a new kind of culinary path.

Interview by Suzanne Wilder. Photography by Yashira Afanador.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in Blue Ash, and I went to high school at Ursuline Academy, then I went to University of Kentucky. I intended on studying physical therapy and ended up graduating with a psychology degree. The whole time I was in school, I was working in restaurants. Somewhere in there, that took over. I realized that I loved it. I enjoyed work more than school, and I just enjoyed the energy of the kitchen and making pizza. I was always working in Italian restaurants.

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Where was your first restaurant job?

It was actually at Papa John’s in Cincinnati. That’s where I started making pizzas at 19. My parents own a Christmas tree farm, so I’ve always been working. I just grew up working.

After school, I decided to go to the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. So I was in New York for two years. I stayed there and worked at Vong and Gramercy Tavern. They were both great for different reasons, and Manhattan in general is an experience. Then I was here; I worked at Jean-Robert at Pigall’s.

After that, I decided to go out west and see what all the fuss was about out there. The produce, I’d heard so much about. There was a restaurant in particular I had my eye on, Quince, in San Francisco. Fresh pasta has always been my passion, and I just really wanted to focus on that and to learn the right way to make that and all the ins and out.

I was there for two years, and there was one night when there were 19 different pastas on the menu, and I was working the pasta station. It was crazy. It was a wonderful experience.

It was what I needed for sure. Not just with pasta, with everything. It was so different than New York for a lot of reasons. In New York, you would come in and you would work your station, and if you had fish on your station, it was ready for you to go. You would just cook it and prepare the vegetables or whatever. If there was something on your station at Quince, it was whole, and it was your responsibility to break it down. If it was an octopus or eel or anchovies or lamb, it was whole. So they were very different experiences but both very fundamental in my training.

I stayed out there for five years after Quince, and I was a personal chef. There was a family that I worked with, and I did a lot of work for a venture capital firm. There were a bunch of social media startups that they worked with, like Twitter, and Yelp and Snapchat and things like that. So that was also an amazing experience. I’ve been lucky.

And then I came back. I started The Wheel at that point. It was seven years that I was in San Francisco. I really didn’t know what direction I wanted to take, but once I decided I wanted to open a restaurant, I knew that I didn’t want to do it out there. It was crowded, and it was expensive, and I just knew how much time it would take. It was time to come home.

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Tell me about The Wheel. How did it get to where we are right now?

I left San Francisco with the idea of opening a sandwich shop, and then somewhere along the line I was like, well, I really want to do pizza and fresh pasta. We’ll just go for it with a full-blown restaurant.

When we started the pop-ups, we were still thinking we were going to be a full-blown restaurant. But it was a ways off. Construction hadn’t started; things were moving slow with the kitchen build out, HVAC in particular… All sorts of hang ups and mild nightmares. So it was January of 2016 that we started the pop-ups. I was like, I know how to do this. We can use half of it while we’re building out the other side. So that was the idea.

And it just slowly grew from an email list. I reached out to a couple friends and family, and said, “Here’s what I’m going to do. Do you know anyone that would be interested?” We started with 50 people and it’s grown to over 1,000 at this point. So by word of mouth and Instagram, it’s spread. We started doing a couple pop-ups a month but last December we ended up doing 12. This time last year, it started to pick up, people started to do their holiday parties here. So it’s really become an event space. We did a 60th birthday last Friday. We’ll supplement private events with pop-up dinners, on average four each month. Somewhere in the middle we went from a full-blown restaurant to a carryout, because we’re not required to have any parking with a carryout. So if we do a restaurant, it’ll be a different location.

The way things have evolved here has been a neat experience. And I’m really flattered that it’s been received so well. People seem to like it because it’s not a restaurant.
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Tell me about the name The Wheel.

The name The Wheel basically came from the Grateful Dead lyrics for the song “The Wheel.” There’s also that pizza is the shape of the wheel, wheel of cheese, the wheel shape of pasta. The wheel’s turning and you can’t slow down. I didn’t want it to be more than two syllables; I wanted it to be easy to pronounce. That’s why we landed here.

I like rustic. I feel like what we’re doing here is a little bit more “grandma’s kitchen.” My grandma actually had a cooking show in the ’50s. I grew up in a food family. Entertaining has come very natural to most of us. It’s just like having people over for dinner.

I’m always cooking. It’s what I want to do. To have people feel like they’re eating in my home is what it’s turned into. I feel like that’s the idea. I think we’re accomplishing that. People feel like they’re coming over to eat dinner. It’s been neat to see the way it’s worked out. Nobody knows who they’re going to sit next to when they get here.

Tell me more about the family involvement. Your grandmother had a cooking show in the ’50s. Are there other ways that it’s been in your family?

My grandpa had a market in Reading and also where the Kenwood Town Center is now, the Big Tree Market. He sold fresh produce and Italian food and Christmas trees in the winter. We just grew up with Sunday dinners; every family event, the focus was food. Stuffed shells, pasta with clam sauce for Christmas Eve. My grandma, my dad’s mom, had the cooking show. And my great uncle, he’s the pizza maker of the family. He’s still living – he’s 97 – and he’s in Columbus. He has two boys, and they have several restaurants up there, which are fun and great. So the thick-crust pizza that we’re calling pane is a spin-off of his pizza dough. I’m lucky that entertaining does come naturally to me. We just grew up where it was easy. People were coming over and that’s just what you do – you put out food, and lots of it.

What do you want people to know about The Wheel?

Every single thing, we make from scratch. The bread dough, the pizza dough, it’s all hand-mixed. We don’t have a mixer. If it’s in here, we made it. The sauce. We make ricotta. We aren’t making sausage yet, but once I get my hands on a whole pig, we will be.

A lot of work goes into it. That’s one thing that sets us apart. There’s a lot of attention paid to detail. A lot of love goes into everything. I’m not just making sandwiches to make money. I want to make the best sandwich.
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What’s your goal? What do you want to happen next?

I’m really digesting everything that’s going on here, and I’m happy with what’s going on. My focus right now is to have the carryout run itself, and then I’ll look forward to next steps. I never thought that this was its own sustainable thing, but it is right now. We’ll do this as long as we can. Is a full-blown restaurant out of the question? Definitely not. I feel like I’ll find something that’s a little bit different than the restaurant to do next. I want to make this amazing.

The Wheel is located at 3805 Brotherton Road in Oakley, with carryout entrees, salads, bread, and pizzas. They’re open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To join the email list for their private pop-up dinners (with a suggested $50/person donation), email thewheeloakley@gmail.com.