Who knew that Italian-American dining would ever be frowned upon in foodie circles these days? Regional Italian-inspired restaurants have popped up in recent years and the seriousness of the dishes those kitchens produced have seemed to taken the pure, unadulterated fun out of what I recall from my childhood – a heaping portion of veal parmigiana with an equally heaping portion of spaghetti and meatballs. These restaurants have gradually, inexplicably lost their popularity, that is until restaurants like Capo emerge. Chef Tony Susi - he of the one widely acclaimed and now sadly shuttered North End staple Sage – has opened up a 300 seat behemoth in – wait for it – the South End. Wait a minute, Southie, you ask? Is Susi’s spaghetti accommodated by Bangers and Mash given the historically populated Irish-American neighborhood?
Surprisingly, the neighborhood works wonderfully, especially since its gentrification over the past several years and a culinary renaissance led by the group that not only oversees Capo – which opened in mid-February of this year – but also successful eateries Lincoln and Loco Taqueria on bustling West Broadway Street. The locals were hungry, and who ever thought they would gravitate towards the Italian-American cuisine made popular in the North End? Whitey Bulger must be rolling over in his prison cell as we speak.
One caveat: the restaurant is extremely loud. On a lovely summer night, the floor-to-ceiling windows out front are open, and the gleeful laughter and chatter from the hoard of customers can be heard from afar. The establishment seats 300, with two long, illuminated bars extending from front to back. Here’s a recommendation: grab a booth or table in the back room where a large stone fireplace resides – it is far quieter there, as opposed to the front room, whose terrible acoustics force one to shout for audible conversation. The space - occupied by younger and older clientele - is modern, decked out in white tile floors, brick and repurposed wood walls and spherical lighting. Susi himself can be seen in the open kitchen, in which his oak-fired brick oven pizza is also visibly churning out smoky, nicely charred pies.
We opt to share small plates under the bar sfizi section of the menu, starting with the creamy, dreamy short rib arancini with herb aoili ($8), rice balls possessing a super crispy exterior and a fontina cheese center packed with ultra-tender pulled short rib that left a dining companion and I consuming in silence and with eyes closed in sheer pleasure. Roasted lamb skewers ($9) are also a pleasant surprise, nicely seasoned with sides of fresh agrodolce peppers and salsa verde that provide a cold, spicy counterpoint to the meat. My only quibble? Wider pieces of meat on the skewers – akin to a thick slab of beef teriyaki – would have been appreciated, as the thin slices made for a more challenging dipping experience. House-made pastas come in half and full portions. Spaghetti Pomodoro ($8 or $16), like most of Capo’s dishes, are simply, yet well executed and nicely plated, served up in a hearty, basil-spiked tomato sauce.
While entrée portions are certainly adequate in size and price (none exceeds $26 and most fall in the teens), be forewarned: they are not at all humongous as other local critics have previously suggested, and none come with any sides, although rather nondescript items such as grilled asparagus can be had for $6-7 apiece. Veal saltimbocca ($25) features thinly pounded meat, tenderly sautéed in a rich white wine and butter sauce, and is topped with prosciutto and a tad too much basil that gives the dish a slightly bitter aftertaste. Better yet are the more traditional, red sauce dishes includeing generous portions of exceptionally battered, pan-fried chicken ($17) and eggplant ($13) parmigiana, harmoniously swimming in a pool of that delectable tomato sauce along with melted mozzarella.
Bar manager Kevin Mabry is formerly of popular, recently re-opened Boston restaurant jm Curley, and he brings his inventive riffs on traditional cocktails to Capo, including a fancified Margerita playfully called the Don Corleone ($12) in tribute to The Godfather (the term ‘Capo,’ after all, signifies Mob Captain in Italian), a sweet and sour blend with Don Julio blanco tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry Curacao, blood orange and lime. A stiffer, no less equally enjoyable option is a fun take on the Old Fashioned called King Cole ($12), bourbon infused with ever subtle tones of more tropical pineapple and banana flavors mixed with Fernet Branca. In the spirit of keeping all things Italian, Capo boasts an all-Italian wine selection, including a rare, much appreciated wine-on-tap program featuring house cabernet, Pinot Grigio, and Rose available by glass ($8), carafe ($18 or $36), or for larger, thirstier groups – jugs ($48).
Desserts are also noteworthy. A non-traditional serving of tiramisu laced with tiny shreds of bitter chocolate brittle is memorable for its surprising lightness and heavy, espresso liquer-tinged alcohol content, although the spongy ladyfingers I seek are somewhat lost in the dish. Rarely sighted, often underappreciated olive oil cake (which I last sampled at Brookline’s Ribelle) gets much love here, the cake ultra moist and topped with marscapone and honey.
In spite of the chaos of the large crowds, service was extremely personable, polished and seamless, particularly after our initial waitress – she of self-admitted three days on the job – was instantly swapped out for a more seasoned waitress who was better equipped to provide recommendations once the front of the house was informed of my wife’s dairy allergy. Several servers, in fact, stopped by to check in throughout the evening, one of whom even checked with Susi to determine what type of clam was used for my wife’s wonderfully garlicky-spicy order of linguine Vongole ($11/$23) given that one of our inquisitive dining companions often goes clamming on Cape Cod.
Upon leaving Capo, one might experience a headache given the extreme noise levels which one only hopes Susi and his staff will quickly remedy. However, given Susi’s well-executed, delicious, and relatively affordable Italian-American cuisine, there is much pleasure to be had to offset that pain. Whitey, it’s a shame that you decided to flee town way back when – you’re missing a highly rewarding meal at Capo. In the words of Peter Clemenza from The Godfather: you’ll want to leave the gun and take the cannoli.