Neighborhood Italian with a Touch of Flair
I first passed Capatoasta on my trip back from Junoon, Flatiron’s one Michelin star contemporary Indian restaurant. The two eateries are nearly side-by-side, and the former was conducting its soft opening that autumn night. The space lacked any real signage besides the sandwich board; the name of the restaurant, scrawled in chalk, looked vaguely Italian (keep in mind I had a bottle of wine in me). Filled with lobster curry and lamb, I lingered at the doorway for a moment. A new restaurant so close to home was exciting, to be one of the first to sample a chef’s cuisine even more so. The place looked empty–servers poised waiting to stretch their legs and flaunt the menu. I toyed with the idea of going in for a drink but instead walked home, wondering what I may have missed but (quickly) forgetting all about the spot.
Last Thursday, looking for a late bite to eat not far from home, I spotted a new Italian restaurant with just a couple (albeit warm) reviews. Their website was slick, styled with the sort of minimalism I chose for my own site. The food, equally, popped with color and precision. The name smacked of a certain familiarity, the address even more so. Capatosta was the fabled restaurant from nearly two months earlier, and, while its popularity hadn’t quite boomed, it looked to be worth the short walk over. The restaurant is a partnership between restaurateur Gianroberto Cavagnaro (who previous owned Tre Settle in the same location) and Calabrian chef Antonio Mermolia, who trained in Italy at the one Michelin star La Capinera and two star Mulino a Vino.
Capatosta, which refers to someone who’s thickheaded or swims upstream, showcases a similarly bold and modern take on Southern Italian and Sicilian cuisine. Italian molecular gastronomy is not only rarely seen outside of the country itself, but often focuses on recipes from the Northern half of the peninsula. Setting sights on the country’s most cherished, traditional flavors–regions where you could expect to be thrown in the sea for serving foams or using tweezers–is certainly going against the current. The restaurant’s interior, just the same, ditches the Dean Martin and the jars of shredded Parmigiano. The space was certainly a bit disjointed, as I was sat with a view into the kitchen, but also of the dark and cluttered service area separating it from the dining room. Nonetheless, the table was still comfortable, and the booth seating–accented with dark wood and plush cushions–was simple yet pleasing to look at.
The dozen tables are looked after by a team of two servers, which led to slight delays refilling drinks. However, given that both wine and water bottles were left on the amply sized table, it proved inconsequential. Empty plates were bussed quickly as well, showing a clear attentiveness (and ability to prioritize) despite remaining active throughout the entirety of the meal. It helped that my waitress had that seductive trace of an Italian accent, but, in general, both servers were incredibly gracious and engaged just as one wishes from such a small operation.
A list of affordable Southern Italian and Sicilian wines joined a small assortment of Prosecco and Campari based cocktails on the drink menu. Again, my waitress was very helpful, walking me through the tasting notes of a few different bottles and offering up her own favorites. The menu proper was a bit more simple, with a selection of gli sfizi (shared, small bites) for $10-$15 and antipasti like eggplant parmigiana and a variety of salads for $15-$18. Four zuppe cost $10 each while a half dozen pastas and an six secondi ranged between $22 and $35.
An opening dish of “deconstructed bruschetta” in soup form set the tone for chef Mermolia’s playful reimagining of the familiar. Not unlike a good tomato gazpacho, the dish had a pleasant sweetness and intensity of tomato flavor that only comes from the freshest product. A drizzle of olive oil, leaf of basil, and dusting of ground black pepper joined a few floating croutons to complete the sensation of bruschetta. Approachable, but visually very attractive, the dish’s balance showed an intimate knowledge of the Italian classic. Capatosta’s bread course–a simple focaccia served with a few drips of olive oil–didn’t prove as masterful. While the softness and light crunch of the bread was admirable, the recipe needed more salt and came off as bland even with the high quality oil.
Next arrived my misto mare, or mixed seafood salad. The dish featured Bibb lettuce and gently grilled octopus, squid, shrimp, and white fish in a light, lemony vinaigrette. Though I thought the seafood itself was cooked nicely and obviously very fresh, I found the salad to be a bit underdressed–until, that is, I noticed a blanket of orange slices along the bottom of the plate. Eaten in conjunction with the lettuce and the other elements, the orange provided a nice extra burst of sweetness and tang. I still would have perhaps liked a bit more of the vinaigrette itself, yet the slices of citrus fruit were an interesting way to complete dish. The oranges, additionally, added a nice texture alongside the chewier elements on the plate.
Though tempted by Mermolia’s take on the minestrone and the zuppa di fagioli, I opted for the humbler vellutata di lenticchie. Lentils might not be the most exciting ingredient, yet Capatosta’s “velvety” lentil soup sold me with an accompanying Parmigiano reduction and crispy prosciutto. The dish came to the table with spiraling colors of light green, brown, and white–the delicate pieces of cured pork huddled just barely out of the liquid. The soup was certainly nice, balancing its earthiness with a more mild, vegetal characteristic. Velvety certainly wasn’t a misnomer on the menu; however, while the parm reduction was applied tableside, I didn’t taste enough of it to elevate the soup beyond other good, more traditional examples. The prosciutto was indeed a good touch–and nicely crisped–but acted more as a novelty.
The first dishes, while they didn’t disappoint, struggled to truly impress. The pasta changed things. Plump, pillowy potato gnocchi was joined by liver ragu–which I had just seen in Upland’s uninspired estrella dish the other week. However, while chef Smillie’s use of chicken liver fell flat on flavor, Mermolia’s delivered the goods. Intensely meaty and generously coating the plate, the liver formed a hearty Bolognese and provided just the touch of chew to contrast with the fresh pasta. Crispy pecorino added a bit of crunch to proceedings, but it was a careful pour of aged balsamic tableside that tied everything together with a syrupy sweetness and undercurrent of sour. I would have been a little sad if a Californian beat a Calabrian when it came to pasta; luckily, Mermolia’s gnocchi is legitimately great by any standards.
If Capatosta’s pasta course had to compete with Upland, then the veal preparation was gunning for Del Posto’s saltimbocca, which I also had only tried a week ago and left me wanting. Mermolia set his sights on another classic preparation, veal Marsala made using the tenderloin and paired simply with mushrooms and new potatoes. At $35, the marsala is tied with the strip steak as the priciest item on the restaurant’s menu–and for good reason. It’s spectacular–not just something I’d go back for, but something I’d go back for a double or perhaps even triple portion of. This is not to say that the portion is particularly small. The price gets you two petite pieces of the tenderloin, generously coated in marsala-reduced mushrooms and herbs until black. As I prepared to cut into it, the meat bent and bounced to the pressure like an endlessly braised piece of shortrib. The interior was a perfect, barely blushing pink. The veal had the slightest of chew, an enrapturing mouthfeel that led to the powerful outer coating and deeply savory, satisfying Marsala sauce. The potatoes were there, they were nice. But the veal was perfect–a lesson to any restaurant in NYC that wants to serve fussy slivers of veal or $65 veal parms.
The dessert list at Capatosta is revealed verbally, and, though there were a couple options, I had to opt for the tableside cannoli I’d read about online. Though the feat is not done by the chef himself, my server certainly impressed by how effortlessly he brought the components together. Mermolia combines a traditional sweetened ricotta cream with pistachios and orange tuiles but truly shines in the freshness of its shells. The cannoli had a slight crunch compared to the mass-produced variety, but retained its integrity and was impressively flaky. There wasn’t quite any “spin” on the flavors involved, yet the act of preparing it tableside and quality of the ingredients made the dessert stand out.
For a neighborhood restaurant, Capatosta truly excels. The flavors are familiar and accessible to passersby, yet the dishes maintain enough personality and precision to satisfy those who make the trip to the restaurant. Mermolia is still getting his feet wet with a venture of his own, yet his training at the forefront of Italian cuisine shines. The food had varying levels of success, but the pasta and the veal both merit a return trip. While the setting is humble and the staff small, this cozy Italian spot is showing that swimming upstream can actually taste quite good.
Date Visited: 12/10/15