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story.lead_photo.caption The Grilled Meatballs, an appetizer at Ristorante Capeo, comes with a balsamic vinegar reduction on a bed of dandelion greens. - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / ERIC E. HARRISON

Batesville native brothers Brian and Eric Isaac opened Ristorante Capeo just over a decade ago in a restored century-plus-old building in North Little Rock’s then nascent, now trendy, Argenta District.

Eric Isaac brings to the table Italian-cuisine credentials that are the equal of any non-Italian chef in the region. He was the sous-chef (under Jeff Medbury) at now defunct Cassinelli 1700 before owner Andrea Cassinelli sponsored his training at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’ Asti, Italy. The class valedictorian, before he returned to North Little Rock to take the executive chef job at Cassenelli he landed an internship at a distinguished restaurant in Leivi, on the Italian Riviera, called Capeo. Which may go a long way to explain why he chose this name for this, his first owned-and-operated establishment.

(Ironically, perhaps, Capeo is catty-cornered from the Spanish-style former funeral home in the 500 block of Main, into which Andrea Cassinelli had planned to move her North Little Rock restaurant south from 1700 Main. Nothing came of that and the restaurant closed in August 2000.)

We won’t go into his many awards and honors or the jobs Chef Isaac held between the closure of Cassinelli 1700 and the opening of Capeo - you can find them all at the Capeo website,

But everything he has on his real or virtual trophy shelves, he has earned. He has, and has always had, a sure feel for Italian cuisine and its preparation. And it remains, as it has always been, a pleasure to eat with him.

The restoration ristorante projects a kind of warm, Old World, old-school, old-building charm that you can find only in a reclamation project. The windows look out on, and reflect, Argenta landmarks, including the Baker House Bed & Breakfast across Fifth Street and the former Argenta post office, now transitioning to the new Argenta branch of the Laman Public Library.

The brick walls are (mostly) covered with an earth tone plaster with high ceilings in two dining rooms - the “back” room also housing the bar. Among the sturdy white clothed tables and chairs, in an alcove right by the front door, is a single heart-shaped table, just for two. Lighting is dim, perhaps even a bit dimmer than “romantic” ( ironically, that heart-shaped love table is among the restaurant’s most brightly lighted spots), but bright enough to read the menus.

As at Cassinelli’s, Isaac’s menu operates on the European/Italian five-course plan -an appetizer (Antipasti, or “before the pasta”), a pasta course (Primi Piatti, first courses), a main course (Secondi Piatti, second courses), salads and/ or side dishes (Contorni) and dessert (Dolci, or sweets).

The entree prices, $18 (for Eggplant Parmesan) to $45 (for the Osso Bucco Milanese), definitely put Capeo at the high end of area restaurants in general and Italian restaurants in particular. And if you’re ordering a full five-course meal, either a la carte or via the Capeo Dinner (chef’s choice, “prices will vary”), you’d better have pretty deep pockets.

But take a deep breath and a minute and you’ll realize that a) you don’t have to order all five courses, or even three courses, and b) if you combine, say, an $8.50 appetizer and a $10 pasta dish, your check at Capeo will come out pretty close to what you’d pay at most of its local nonchain competitors (by proximity, for example, downtown Little Rock’s Ciao and the recently reborn Bruno’s Little Italy).

It would be hard to go wrong with anything on the Antipasti list, which includes such temptations as Tuna Loin ($10), Bruschetta ($7), Sausage and Peppers ($10) and The Hunter ($11.50), a charcuterie plate. Well, maybe some folks (though not us) might give a little shudder at the fried octopus ($9).

But we can definitely recommend the Grilled Meatballs ($8.50), served on a bed of dandelion greens and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction. The four pork and chicken meatballs, artfully displayed at the corners of a square plate, were of a good size, coarse ground and firm the way we like them, and dusted with Parmigiana-Reggiano shavings, and we took the waiter’s suggestion and squeezed the juice of half a lemon over them; sure enough, just as he told us, it really locked in the flavor of the balsamic vinegar.

The Capeo kitchen proudly makes its own fresh mozzarella, which is available with fresh tomatoes, basil and olive oil in the Mozzarella Caprese ($9); on the occasion of our visit, it was also available in an excellent off-menu-special roll($9), sliced thin and wrapping prosciutto and grated Parmigiana-Reggiano with the same balsamic reduction as the meatballs.

Capeo offers two first-rate pasta dishes among its “Primi Piatti.” The penne is practically al dente in the just-spicy enough Penne al Arrabiatta ($8.50), tossed in a tomato sauce made with garlic and onions and laced with hot red peppers. (“Arrabbiata” is Italian for “angry”; turns out there’s also very little difference between arrabbiata and “Fra Diavolo,” which is an Italian-American version mostly used on seafood.)

Parmigiana-Reggiano shavings come on the top; we count as well spent the $3.50 for a small curved piece of pleasantly vivid Italian sausage (Capeo makes its own), perhaps redolent more of sage than fennel.

Capeo’s Lasagna ($11) was a real eye-opener, nicely balanced between layers of firm pasta, cheese and chunky meat in a “classic” meat sauce. The surprise was not in how rich it was but how spicy. Our waitress was kind enough - she actually suggested it, in fact - to split it for us, and half a lasagna was more than enough for a decently priced appetizer.

We stayed in the middle of the price range for our “Secondi Piatti,” passing up, though with some regret, the Osso Bucco Milanese (classically prepared braised veal shank with vegetables on a bed of saffron risotto) for the delicious Duck Valentine ($27). The dish, named for former Arkansas Travelers executive, notable local gourmet and oenophile Bill Valentine, features slices of pan-seared duck breast in a sauce made with port and sambuca (an anisette-like liqueur).

Filling, but much less fulfilling, was the Cod ($25), with tomatoes, olives and artichoke hearts in a seafood broth. The dish may be authentic (“prepared in the style of Tuscany,” the menu explains), but that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. Cod is a pretty insipid fish, and ours was kind of chewy, and neither the tomatoes, the olives, the artichoke hearts or the broth, nor all of them together, was enough to overcome that.

Capeo has an impressive wine list (the cellar holds approximately 1,000 bottles) that includes noteworthy dessert wines - an after-dinner option worth looking into, since we were too stuffed for actual dessert. That’s partly because of Capeo’s excellent fresh bread, and while we were waiting for the kitchen to warm it to order, we noshed on the long, thin, crispy bread sticks present on the table when we sat down.

What you won’t find on the table, by the way: Salt. Pepper. Grated cheese. Wait staff will gladly supply them if you ask, but you have to ask.

Service, by the way, was excellent on both our visits. Food came out of the kitchen in a timely fashion; our nonalcoholic beverages were refilled frequently. We got help where we needed it, and the waiters maintained just the right balance between friendly and clingy.

Ristorante Capeo

Address: 425 Main St., North Little Rock

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Cuisine: Italian

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D, DC

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Yes (advisable on weekends)

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 376-3463

Weekend, Pages 34 on 12/12/2013

Print Headline: Capeo still as Italian as it gets

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