Ristorante Capeo has been quietly excelling on a Main Street corner in North Little Rock's Argenta District, with chef Eric Isaac, once of the estimable, now late Cassinelli's 1700, serving up high-end Italian dishes that have continually pleased palates for a dozen years.
Recently, Isaac has decided to make a little noise on his quiet corner, an attempt to broaden his business by adding, for the first time, weekday lunch and -- gasp! -- Neapolitan-style pizza.
It has added a new dimension to the more-or-less booming Argenta restaurant scene, as well as joining the blossoming bunch of Neapolitan pizza providers that now includes Raduno (nee Piro), the Pizzeria at Terry's Finer Foods, Bruno's Little Italy, ZaZa and Loca Luna.
Isaac has redeveloped the back of his historic Argenta space to add the pizza oven and a new bar area, plus space for another table or two, which can be accessed from a back door if you know where to find it. This allows pure pizza customers or those picking up to-go orders to enter and depart without having to encounter, if they don't wish to, the alto cucina Italiano diners in the front.
The two front dining rooms haven't particularly changed. They're cozy. They're also dim, even in bright daylight (frustrating for foodies -- and journalists -- who engage in the current craze of photographing their plates). In the main room, almost all the nicely spaced white-clothed tables have a view of the mostly open kitchen and the framed prints and food posters on the walls. The front room is even cozier, perhaps even a bit cave-like.
Isaac is not reinventing the wheel with his new lunch menu; all seven pasta dishes and all three soups are available at dinner. In a way, that's comforting, because the quality of dinner there has been consistently good across more than a decade of sampling.
Nevertheless, we focused on two pasta dishes that, for one reason or another, we had never tried. Both were excellent and the portions were well sized for lunch.
We were particularly thrilled (with one caveat) with the Linguine and Clam Sauce ($10), firm linguine tossed with chopped sea clams in the proper white wine-butter sauce with just enough herbs and red pepper flakes to give it plenty of flavor. (Bruno's is the only other place in the area that does this dish right -- a number of places use a cream-based sauce -- and we have to ask them to cut back on the red pepper.)
The caveat: in addition to the chopped clams, there's a half-dozen or so baby clams in the shell, an increasingly common and welcome touch. However, rather than just leaving them on the top where they'd also serve as a garnish, the kitchen tossed them in with the pasta, the chopped clams and the sauce, creating little "mines" around which the diner's fork had to negotiate.
Anybody can do spaghetti and meat sauce; Capeo ups the ante with its Tagliatelle Bolognese ($10), a firm "ribbon" pasta, slightly wider than fettuccine, tossed with a slightly orange Bolognese sauce (tomato, chunks of ground meat, red wine and, yes, chopped carrots). We practically inhaled our to-go order.
Our two Capeo soups were superb, the Tomato and Gorgonzola rich and redolent with herbs and just the right amount of Gorgonzola cheese, and the creamy Wild Mushroom, with a "hint" of truffle oil -- actually, a fairly generous amount of truffle oil. Alas, for lunch, they're only available as $7 bowls, so ordering them with pasta or pizza may risk overdoing it a bit.
Capeo's 10-inch pizzas are prominent on the new lunch menu (and priced a buck or two less than they are at dinner). The offerings are not especially innovative, with a couple of exceptions, but the ingredients are fresh, the cheese-to-sauce ratio is excellent and the toppings, while not generous, are more than adequate. The crust is thin, as Neapolitan style demands; you can have them make your pie on gluten-free crust for an additional $4.
Our favorite was a pie you don't see every day: Seafood ($12.50 for lunch), topped with calamari, shrimp and scallops, plus sauce and mozzarella. We encountered chewable chunks of shrimp and calamari, but a lot of it seems to have cooked into the sauce, providing a pronounced but not overwhelming seafood flavor.
That may also have been the reason the crust was a bit softer and flabbier than the other pizzas we tried: Our Italian sausage ($11.50 for lunch) was just fine; we liked our Prosciutto D' Parma ($12 for lunch), but just weren't as impressed with it as we expected to be.
Isaac, worried that his 800-degree, wood-burning oven would be too hot for calzones, experimented for awhile until he came up with one that worked, filled with a mozzarella-ricotta blend and choice of two fillings ($11). Our mushroom-pepperoni calzone was delicious. It came with a small bowl of tangy but cold red sauce for dipping or spreading, which provided a somewhat jarring contrast with the very hot calzone. We have recommended that they serve the calzones with a steak knife, because our rounded table knife, while useful for spreading the sauce, was not up to the task of getting through the crust, very firm verging on tough.
If you don't have to go back to the office after lunch, you can take advantage of Capeo's rather extensive beer offerings, ranging from mass-market Pilsners (Miller Light and Michelob Ultra) to imports in a range of shades (golden to brown to dark to double stout). Capeo also has, as it has always had, a very impressive wine list.
Service was universally friendly and excellent across a handful of visits.
Weekend on 08/13/2015
Print Headline: Lunch, pizza broaden Capeo appeal