By Sara Ventiera
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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
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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.
I'd skip the salads next time. A "classic" caesar ($11) felt burdened by its heavy coat of grated parmesan we would have preferred a lighter touch, incorporating ingredients into a balanced dressing of mashed anchovy, Worcestershire sauce, and egg yolks. (Still, opinion was split. The 15-year-old loved it; her mother didn't.) A Lombarda salad ($12) of mixed greens, gorgonzola, and walnuts with balsamic vinegar and a few leaves of endive was good but not stellar; the endive seemed tired, browning at the edges. These are tall prices for salads, anyway.
But Amadeo Tasca is a genius with pasta. Along with the superb tagliolini al limoncello, we polished off a plate of gnocchi alla Sorrentina ($20) so youthful, fresh, and delicate that it made all the other gnocchis of our days seem bland and bloated. These were big mouthfuls, helium-light, tossed in a tart fresh marinara sauce laced with basil. With a handful of grated parmesan, it was food for gods and angels.
Secondi piatti arrived. A whole snapper ($32) had been exactingly grilled; Berni expertly filleted the animal tableside. With no more than a touch of olive oil, lemon, and wine, it was one of the finest fishes we've ever eaten a textbook example of why piscine pulchritude needs no frills, just a few crunchy, buttered vegetables alongside. (Describing this special earlier, the restrained Berni had hardly been able to resist kissing his fingertips.) Skillet-cooked chicken (petto di pollo in padella, $19) nested among earthy, juicy mushrooms, olive-oil-infused eggplants, and tomatoes, with cushions of fresh, melting buffalo mozzarella. A special veal scaloppini with mushrooms ($22.50) had been pounded within an eighth-inch of its life and was served in an unctuous Marsala sauce.
Less successful were pesce alla Positano ($26), snapper fillet sautéed with onions, tomatoes, and herbs that appeared to have been overcooked (this might have been a singular mistake), and a wishy-washy cannelloni in red sauce ($21.50) that left no clear impression.
A pair of fine young waiters, sleek and handsome as Siamese cats, carried out our desserts (each $7.50). Semisweet, lemon-scented ricotta cheesecake tasted exactly the way I remembered it from years of Easter holidays with Philadelphia Italians (a treat I found, at 16, almost impossible to stop eating and still do). It tastes like textured, cooked cream with vague notes of burnt caramel. Imported peach and lemon sorbets, the flavors of Roman summers, are served, charmingly, in hollowed-out peaches and lemons with little fruit lids. A buttery, flaky fruit tart came filled with sweet-tart berries. Tasca has injected some soul into the exhausted concept of tiramisu; he soaks his ladyfingers in brandy and Kahlua and layers them only with the sweetest, lightest, mascarpone cheese ("beaten, and beaten, and beaten," Gracie says). Elegant and delicious.
The service at Capri Blu, orchestrated by Berni whose lugubrious enthusiasm for, and deep knowledge of, the cuisine he's serving is palpable is some of the best in the city. No wine glass remains unfilled; no plate sits empty; pacing is measured and sedate. This is a restaurant for relaxed family dinners, for romantic tête-à-têtes, a place to be welcomed, soothed, and well-fed. The buildings around it could be falling in heaps, the whole city crumbling to dust, but you get the feeling no catastrophe will ever ruffle the surface of these azure waves.