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Despite its upscale reputation, it is possible to dine on the cheap at Ristorante Capeo. We just wouldn’t recommend it.
Not because you wouldn’t get a delicious meal if you stuck to the all-under-$10 pasta portion of the menu — but because you’d be missing out on so much else. This is a place where splurging is definitely worth the money.
(We’d also recommend making reservations, especially if you’re planning to go on a weekend night. Diners who showed up shortly after we arrived at 7:30 on a recent Saturday were told there’d be an hour wait.)
The menu includes appetizers like duck confit and stuffed eggplant, eight pastas, and about a dozen meat or fish entrees. It all looked good to us, so we took the easy way out and ordered the Capeo Dinner: a seven-course tour through the menu that costs $50 per person. Portion sizes are toned down, we’d guess by what we were served, so you actually have a chance of fitting it all in your stomach.
You can make as many specific requests as you like, or just put yourself in Chef Eric Isaac’s hands and enjoy what comes. We did the latter, with just a couple of caveats to ensure our dining companion didn’t go home with a raging migraine, and could not have been happier with our meal or with the bottle of La Crema pinot noir ($32) we ordered along with it. (Capeo has an excellent, varied, well-priced and extensive wine list that changes on a regular basis, or you can bring your own for a $17 cork fee.)
It started with two antipasti: mozzarella caprese and a fried fish plate. Capeo makes its own mozzarella daily, and this caprese tasted as fresh as they come, served with a salsa-like topping of tomatoes, basil and olive oil. The modestly named fried fish — a sampler of bite-size pieces of calamari, shrimp and scallops, all drizzled with balsamic vinegar — was fantastic, and we don’t really even like shrimp. Or calamari or scallops, for that matter. But the batter and the addition of the balsamic vinegar made it irresistible, despite knowing we had five courses to go.
Next came a small Caesar salad, which Capeo serves with toasted pine nuts. Caesar’s not our favorite way to eat our greens, but like the fried fish, Capeo’s version was excellent, and we finished it all.
We do wish we’d been a little pickier on some courses, because there were several pasta choices we would have enjoyed more than the tagliatelle al ragu Bolognese we were served. This isn’t a knock against Capeo — but we could have had the more interesting Pesto Alla Capeo (chestnut pasta, broccoli and potatoes tossed in pesto), or penne al Arabiatta, or even spaghetti carbonara. But the Bolognese was fine, and our dining companion’s only complaint was that he thought the portion size was too generous.
Onward to the entrees. First came baked halibut, a small filet baked in a sort of rich stew of tomatoes, olives and artichoke hearts in a seafood broth. We would never have ordered it on our own, just because of our own taste preferences, but it was absolutely delicious — our companion said it might be the best fish dish he’s ever had.
Next came the one dish we did specially request — the night’s special, a grilled elk chop. (We were mighty tempted by the Duck Valentine, but the sambucco-and-port-wine sauce was off limits for our dining companion.) We’d never tried elk before, and we were pleasantly surprised at the lack of gaminess in the meat. The chop was pepper-encrusted, and that flavor actually dominated, but overall the dish was worth the extra $5 it added to the price of each dinner.
By the time we finished that course, we had crossed the threshold that separates full from man-that-hurts. But there’s no way we’d not at least sample the tiramisu in an Italian restaurant this good. Even with the small portion size, though, we could barely manage two bites, and couldn’t even finish the coffee we ordered to go with it. And as surprised as we are to hear ourselves say it, it wasn’t the highlight of the meal, as dessert often is for us. It was fine, but everything that came before it was much, much better than fine.
Our splurge-dinner tab for two, including wine and tax but not the tip, was about $165 — definitely too much for an everyday experience for most people, but worth every dime. And, as we said earlier, it’s possible to enjoy Capeo for much less. Appetizers and pasta dishes are all under $10, and most entrees are under $25. There are plenty of wines available by the glass as well.
425 Main St.
North Little Rock
The seven-course Capeo Dinner is a bargain at $50 per person, but you can’t go wrong ordering a la carte from Capeo’s pastas and entrees. The wine list is well priced and wonderfully long.
5 p.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Bar opens at 4 p.m.
Reservations recommended. Moderate to expensive prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.