Brassy and theatrical Capo’s is a newcomer to the North Beach restaurant scene. And let’s just say up front, it’s not pushing the outer limits of gastronomic excellence with what it describes on its menu as “Chicago Pizza and Fine Italian Dinners.” Nevertheless it has become a popular neighborhood way station for locals and visitors, and it can get crowded.
Capo’s, in the Italian heart of North Beach on Vallejo between Columbus and Stockton, may speak to some of us, but for a variety of reasons it doesn’t speak loudly and clearly to me. It’s a theme restaurant — Chicago Prohibition era, gangster, B-grade movie stuff, and about as legit as that twitty twitterer Kim Kardashian. Capo’s is virtual reality without being real.
Chicago gangster photos decorate the reclaimed brick walls. Dark banquettes — which elsewhere in North Beach seem to work — here seem dated and Chicago mobster-ish. And in a front window near the entrance, displayed as though it really matters, is an ancient, hand-operated meat slicer. I was trying to figure out why it was there because Capo’s artifacts are based principally on Al Capone, Sam Giancana and G-man Eliot Ness and his Untouchables. Later I figured it out. It’s for slicing the baloney that the place delivers. Chicago? What’s that toddling town got to do with North Beach?
Oh yes, about the food: While some of it can be powerfully “Chicago style” — whatever that is — I found most of it to range from OK to quite good, but off-message like the meat slicer.
Diners are greeted by a handsome and comfortable bar that emphasizes hard-stuff cocktails. As a saloonist who has earned his stripes, I was pleased to note that my Campari on the rocks came with a wedge of orange, not lemon. Orange is the correct decoration for this classic, and even in Italian North Beach most bartenders balance a lemon rind on the glass.
Once seated, service is professional and friendly and out comes a complimentary cup of thin and pale zuppa fagioli (bean soup) with a few lonely beans and a bit of gummy pasta floating around. Taste was adequate but the spoon didn’t exactly stand up in it.
THE MOBSTER MENTALITY
Capo’s serves a lot of pizza. I mean a lot. The open kitchen has three ovens — a wood-fired one for preparing pizza and baked pastas, and two brick ovens heated to different degrees to bake multiple layers of Chicago-style pies. Chicago-style pizza comes in four types — deep dish, cast-iron pan, stuffed, or cracker thin. The signature pie is called Quattro Forni — cooked four different times in various ovens.
On my first lunch visit I tried the Chicago Beef Sandwich ($11). My sliced beef au jus was joined in a soft bun by giardiniera peppers. And there were fries and a house pickle. Unfortunately I added to my already adequate lunch a fire-roasted stuffed bell pepper ($12) with house-made Calabrese sausage, sautéed mushrooms, breadcrumbs, ricotta, provolone, and tomato. All of this was napped unnecessarily with honey. It was fussy with too many things going on in the same bite, and I was overmatched. The sandwich was French-dip with an attitude and would have worked by itself. The stuffed bell pepper was a contrived mishmash.
On another occasion the North Beach Gentleman Trencherman, James Melling, whom I trust in most things gustatory, joined me. We sat in the dark Sam Giancana booth, sipped a stylish Italian white wine, Fazi Verdicchio ($8 a glass), and mused on Giancana’s relationship with Frank Sinatra and the mistress that the Sicilian-American mobster presumably shared with JFK.
The Clams Casino ($12) were excellent — succulent large clams in a briny broth of white wine, garlic, lemon, parsley, and some finely chopped bacon. It was a fine rendition of this classic, and James and I split it. We added a second appetizer, Anchovy and Sardine Crostini ($10). According to the menu, piled on thin slices of hard-crusted bread were white anchovies, sardines, chopped kalamata olives, anchovy cream, sweet peppers, bits of artichoke, Piave cheese, arugula, and lemon. We found the flavor to be too fishy for our taste. The Italian Chopped Salad ($8) worked fine as foil for the crostini.
THE ITALIAN STALLION
I had spied and ordered a house specialty, Chicken Limoncello ($19). Two thigh-leg combinations were nicely done, juicy and succulent. However, the Limoncello sauce made the entire thing cloyingly sweet. The Italian digestivo Limoncello is usually served after dinner, chilled, in a tiny glass, not smothering some very good chicken.
The usual Italian pasta dishes are available and most are quite good. Wood-fired meat or eggplant lasagna ($15) is a fine choice, but my preference is for the spaghetti and meatballs ($15), a standout, especially the meatballs, which are large and juicy and a bit on the spicy side.
More than half of Capo’s offerings are Chicago-style pizza of one kind or another. Some are named after Chicago mob figures, and one is called the Italian Stallion. These range in price from the deep dish ($21–$33), stuffed ($23–$35), cast-iron pan ($25–$33), and cracker thin ($17–$20). Most of these are large enough to serve the entire Chicago Bears football squad. The deep-dish Italian Stallion — mozzarella, fontina, Italian beef, Italian sausage, and horseradish cream sauce — tops out at $28. Those pizzas I tried were O.K. to quite good. But one friend described a Capo’s Chicago deep-dish pie as a soggy,
doughy cheese bomb.
Capo’s is the third North Beach restaurant opened by the high-energy capo (boss man) Tony Gemignani, and we commend him for his drive and creativity. In 2009, he opened Tony’s Pizza Napoletana at the corner of Union and Stockton, which became the go-to pizza joint in the neighborhood. About a year later he opened Tony’s Coal-Fired Pizza & Slice House next door to the corner flagship — again, overnight success.
THE OVERWHELMING ACHIEVER
Tony, a personable, good-looking guy born and raised across the bay in Fremont, is not an over-achiever — he’s an overwhelming achiever. My editor won’t stand for a full-blown Tony Gemignani biography, but here are a few highlights: 11-time World Pizza Champion, 8-time World Champion Pizza Acrobat, 1-time World Champion Pizza Maker, president of the World Pizza Champions Inc., 2-time Food Network gold medalist, two-time Guinness World Record holder, restaurant owner, chef, cooking teacher, instructor, consultant, and author. For the whole nine yards, go to Google.
Dear Tony: Please don’t put out a contract on me. I really think your place is swell, and I’m just a goodfella.
Capo’s: 641 Vallejo Street (between Columbus and Stockton), 415-986-8998, www.capossf.com; Monday & Wednesday–Thursday 5–11 p.m., Friday & Saturday noon to midnight, Sunday noon to 11 p.m. Cash only.
Imported from a gangster movie set.
Can get loud. There’s a 1930s music soundtrack — great if you’re a melancholy baby.
Tends to be dark, but you can read the menu.
NOT TO MISS DISHES
With half the menu devoted to pizza — OK to very good — you might as well try them. Clams Casino is a winner. So is spaghetti
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and type of restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.