The Filet Mignon Trio

The Filet Mignon Trio includes Filet Mignon Aragosta, topped with fresh picked Maine lobster meat and a gorgonzola demi glace; the Filet Mignon au Poivre, topped with a brandy peppercorn sauce with a hint of cream; and the Filet Mignon Oscar, topped with fresh picked Maryland crabmeat and Hollandaise sauce. (Rick Hartford, / April 21, 2011)

Carmen Anthony Vacalebre had already established a successful fast-food business in the 1970s and 1980s with his Me Ma and Arby's franchises. But he wanted to step it up by opening a New York City-style steakhouse, the kind he liked to frequent.

He wanted a place that would rate up there with such red-meat restaurant icons as Del Friscos, Lugers, Keens and Sparks — clubby, intimate eateries with great wines and even better steaks. Every day he passed a Ponderosa Steakhouse at 496 Chase Ave., a few blocks from his Waterbury office. When the place closed in the mid '90s, Vacalebre decided to make his business dream come true.

Next month, Vacalebre will celebrate the 15th anniversary of his flagship restaurant, Carmen Anthony Steakhouse of Waterbury.

"It was May 6, 1996, that we opened the doors," say Vacalebre of the upscale restaurant on one of Waterbury's main strips. "It is a classic, and classic is always in style."

PHOTOS: Carmen Anthony

From its deep maroon and forest-green décor to the linen-topped dining room tables and Naugahyde booths, it's a place oozing with appeal.

"I told the decorators I wanted a place that felt just like a 40-year-old New York City steakhouse," said Vacalebre, pointing out details like carved dark wood panels, oversized black-and-white pictures of the Rat Pack and other memorabilia usually associated with steakhouses. A huge hardwood bar with a life-size carved Indian on one side and mood-making lighting fixtures enhance the swanky atmosphere while attentive staff, many of whom have been at the restaurant since it opened, add a personal touch.

The pièce de résistance, decoratively speaking, are the rows and rows of celebrity caricatures that grace the walls, pen drawings that are duplicates of those that hang in Sardi's.

Vacalebre ended up with the caricatures, which hung in the former 1249 Restaurant in Waterbury, by buying a house.

"Moe [Allegrini] always said they would never hang anywhere but in his own restaurant," Vacalebre explains. "When he retired, he put his house up for sale, and I was interested in buying it. I said I'd buy the house if he would sell me the caricatures, too, so the joke is I bought the prints, and he threw the house in as part of the deal."

But a good steakhouse cannot succeed on looks alone. Vacalebre, a Waterbury native, knows he is a businessman, not a chef, and is tenacious about making sure his Waterbury restaurant, along with the four others that followed, are well known for the food.

While three of the Carmen Anthony restaurants — in Avon, Woodbury and Wethersfield — are billed as fish houses, his newest place in New Haven and his oldest in Waterbury spotlight steak, from the simple to the sophisticated. Filet mignon, porterhouse, rib eye and New York strip (all 21-day aged Angus beef steaks), are the core of the menu. There also are "Simply Grilled Steaks" for the purist and specialty steak dishes, including Steak Diane, twin petite filet mignons with artichoke hearts and a brandy demi-glace; and Steak Florentine, an 8-ounce filet with garlic and herbs and served over sautéed spinach.

Vacalebre, part of a close-knit Italian family, has brought to his restaurants some recipes from home, including the "minestra," a hearty "peasant" soup made of savoy cabbage, sausage, potatoes and cannellini beans in chicken broth.

"I remember sitting at home at the kitchen table when I was a kid and having minestra," says Vacalebre. "People love it."

But even at his steak houses, it's not just about steak. Seafood offerings include Chilean Sea Bass Calabrese; assorted pasta dishes, including cavatelli with sausage and broccoli; Lobster Fra Diavio with Maine lobster and a spicy red sauce served over linguini; and the restaurant's award-winning potato-encrusted crab cakes. And if you still have room, don't miss the appropriately nicknamed "moan-inducing" white- and dark-chocolate bread pudding, served with warm chocolate and Irish crème sauces.

Carmen Anthony serves lunch and dinner. Lunch entrees range from $9.95 to $16.95, with sandwiches and salads also available. Dinner entrees range from $17.95 to $39.95, with lighter fare including its famous $19.95 hot lobster roll and $13.95 classic steakhouse burgers.

A past chairman of the board of the Connecticut Restaurant Association and director of the National Restaurant Association's Educational Foundation, Vacalebre is proud of his homegrown business success and appreciative of the dozens of "best of" awards his places have garnered.

But his restaurants, like others, have been forced to weather the economic downturn of recent years.

"The past three years have been hell. It's been challenging, but we have managed," said Vacalebre, who is offering a variety of $19.96 dinner specials as part of the Waterbury location's celebration.