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At noon, if you happen to be sitting at the bar inside Capri Blu with owner Amadeo Tasca; his wife, Gracie; or their old friend maitre d' Mauricio Berni; if you happen to be sipping coffee and watching Italian game shows on the little TV while you're waiting for the fish guy to show up (he'll be bringing branzino, overnighted from Italy) and if you turn toward the open doorway and squint into the May sunshine spilling over this newly refurbished stretch of Dixie Highway you'll find yourself staring straight into the maw of the beast.
Yes, the blasted roads in downtown West Palm Beach are finally finished. Sort of. This precious few blocks of asphalt, torn and bleeding, sent dozens of small, independently owned restaurants packing during what will long be remembered as a five-year reign of terror. Today, the traffic's moving, even if pedestrians still have to skirt around orange cones where sidewalks inexplicably vanish. These roads are officially done, and that means Capri Blu can get back to normal after what Gracie Tasca will tell you are some of the longest, most frustrating, and tear-filled years of her life.
Tasca's trials, it appears, are not quite over yet. But she faces her open door with an equanimity most of us can only aspire to. The view through that rectangle of light is entirely filled by twisted, rusty tons of exposed rebar. Patches of blue open through gaping concrete, between mountains of dust, junk, and detritus. The D&D Center across the street from Capri Blu is going down, to be replaced, some fine day, by a new library and a museum of photography. In the meantime, there's the scream of metal being torn out by its roots, the sonic boom of falling concrete, a din that turns this patch of sidewalk into a deaf zone. Lawyers and real estate brokers and PR mavens on their lunch breaks scurry past, averting their faces as if from a hideous accident.
251 Sunrise Ave.
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Region: West Palm Beach
Capri Blu celebrated its tenth birthday last weekend. It's one of only three restaurants in downtown West Palm Beach to survive a decade of botched urban planning. There was the opening of the City Place shopping complex, which sucked every stray customer into its black hole; there were scary crime statistics people mugged and left for dead in local alleys and parking garages; there were those sublimely sadistic parking meters, operating till midnight and accepting only quarters; and there was the black-magic thicket of "Bob's Barricades" effectively walling off Clematis Street like some enchanted Sleeping Beauty.
Still, Gracie Tasca is philosophical. "People think they're going to make a million dollars in two years when they open a restaurant," she says. "But running a restaurant, you have to build up customers over time. It's a slow process. This is a hard business. We've made a lot of sacrifices, but we have very loyal customers. You need to like what you're doing; you can't just be in it for the money."
As far as Gracie is concerned, roads or no roads, it's love that kept them together. "My husband loves to cook. His face lights up when he sees people enjoy the food. And Mauricio knows what cocktails his customers drink before they ask people sit two, three hours over dinner. We never bring a check until you ask for it. It feels like home here."
Well, not my home. I don't have a quartet of opera singers show up at my door every Monday night to sing selections from Rigoletto, nor do I have a maitre d' who happens to be the grandson of famous Roman restaurateur Alfredo di Lelio (of fettuccine Alfredo fame). But the experience of dining at Capri Blu does recall little far-flung inns on empty roads outside Vienna, Copenhagen, Nice, or Capri Town, places where the proprietors greet you with warmth and whip up generations-old recipes with a fine nonchalance.
The food here tastes home-cooked, not just "house-made." Gracie says she and Amadeo, who grew up alongside Mauricio in Alfredo di Lelio's Roman kitchens, get up mornings and hand-pick tomatoes and green peppers at a farm off Military Trail. They buy the freshest whole snapper and grouper from fishermen in Riviera Beach and Jupiter. All the pasta, the tagliolini, the fettuccine, the gnocchi, is rolled and cut in their own kitchens. The ricotta cheesecake and the tiramisu, the flaky little tarts filled with strawberries and blueberries are made from their own recipes. When you're served a plate of tagliolini al limoncello ($20), a pure-silk concoction of pliant noodles tossed in butter, cream, and Italy's lemon- and sun-infused liqueur, you know it has been made with feeling. This food tastes real.
Relaxing at a linen-covered corner table with my siblings, their spouses, and kids, I realized how rare that is. We grazed a leisurely path across this fairly simple menu, savoring specialties like paper-thin, blood-red carpaccio ($14) festooned with shavings of authentically gritty parmigiano Reggiano, cool against leaves of peppery arugula. The evening's special appetizer, grilled calamari ($15), was supple, lightly charred, drizzled in lemon and olive oil. Preparations here are bravely unadorned this food relishes its own being. Along with a handful of salads and a grilled whole portabella with warm buffalo mozzarella, that's it for the appetizers.