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Monday, October 19, 2020

Neopolitan Niceties

From the Food Vault Dept.: I started reviewing restaurants early in 1986, successfully pitching to Metroland Magazine the notion that we could accommodate their budget-free approach to things by approaching selected restaurants and inviting them to let me dine for free and assess them at their best. We did this for a few months until a welcome self-consciousness set in and a budget was established. But this is one of those early pieces, introducing me to what would become my favorite restaurant – Albany, NY’s, still-thriving Café Capriccio – and the chef who would become one of my finest friends, Jim Rua.


“I’M NOT GOING TO DO ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY TONIGHT,” said Jim Rua, chef-owner-manager of the Café Capriccio. “What I'm going to do is choose some items off of tonight’s menu that I think are really representative of the place. Okay?" He’s got the kind of beard that, when he grins, looks like a forest in motion.

Jim Rua | Photo by Joe Schuyler
Café Capriccio is inauspiciously located on Grand Street in downtown Albany. There is a long bar in one room and a small collection of tables in another. The walls are paneled with pine; the music, Jim’s choice, features Italian opera.

Like much of the opera, the recipes Jim uses come from Northern Italy. The menu changes from night to night, but there are favorites that reappear regularly. Our first course, Antipasto Capriccio, was one of these, a feast of salami, provolone, marinated cauliflower, apple slices, red pepper strips, small slivers of quiche, fried eggplant, melon, strawberries, mushroom caps, mussels, artichoke hearts, red cabbage, olives, tuna, anchovies and romaine, with a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and lots of herbs. And I may have missed an item or two, but you stop writing and start eating when confronted with such a concoction.

“Reminds me of biology class,” said companion Drew as he started to dissect his own side of the feast. Now, what we have yet to learn is that you needn’t finish it all. As a youngster in Cincinnati, I was a proud member of Skipper Riley’s Clean Plate Club, televised kid-show propaganda that helped make me the chugger I am today.

That didn’t stop us from completely doing in the next course. Eggplant with Four Cheeses violates physical law by proving that the sum of the parts can exceed the whole. In this instance, the combination of mozzarella, gruyere, gorgonzola, and romano is heavenly; add a crisp base of fried eggplant and it’s sublime.

Service at the Café is efficient and even a little tongue in cheek. The waiters wear formal attire, but they are bound by no consistency of color or style.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Our pasta course was served with the admonition that it’s “a special among the cognoscenti of the house.” Calamari Neri is squid in its own ink. “Sepia squid, little toot-long things,” explained Jim. “with an ink sac that we make the sauce out of.”

It looks like little mushroom bits covered with root beer. “What the hell,” said Drew, eyeing his plate with trepidation. “I had sushi once,” This was my first bout with the wiggly beast and, as Drew later observed, the problem really lies between the ears. Those who grew up eating squid know no such reservation.

The flavor? Well, now I can describe other foodtuffs as “tasting like squid.” It’s pretty unique. You try it. And the pasta is terrific.

The entrée was Lamb Abruzzo, “choice cuts from the leg, marinated, and grilled pink.” Served with fresh broccoli and carrots (cooked until just tender), it’s a tasty variation on a taken-for-granted meal.

This was all accompanied by a 1980 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, an Italian red wine that Rua has been championing of late.

Between cappuccino (prepared in the restaurants huge copper coffee mechanism) and dessert (chosen from a selection of cakes and pies presented on a platter), our waiter revealed himself to be the Amazing Karabini, and backed that up with some deft card tricks at the table. That’s not part of the standard dinner fare, but it fits the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

As dinner wound down, the bar was visited by a group from the Albany Writers Institute, under whose auspices Maurice Sendak had just given a talk. So here was Sendak chatting with area journalist Vinnie Reda. And there was Rua, characteristic cigar in hand, talking to some others.

It’s that kind of place. Once you discover it, you’re part of the family.

Café Capriccio
, 49 Grand Sheet, Albany • 518-465-0439, Current hours: Dinner and take-out 5-9 Wednesday-Sunday. Call or check website for updates. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested.

Metroland Magazine, 10 April 1986

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