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Ristorante Capeo in North Little Rock has long been a destination restaurant for Italian food lovers. It offers a wide selection of delightful antipasti dishes like fried calamari and veal sweetbreads alongside a fresh selection of pasta dishes ranging from traditional linguine in clam sauce to a decadent lobster and shrimp dish. So when the restaurant announced it was adding a wood-fired pizza oven and opening for lunch, there was much anticipation among those of us who make downtown our daytime home.
Although folks may not realize it, Central Arkansas is home to one of the most solid pizza scenes in the region. Tasty pizza-by-the-slice from local favorites like Iriana's, Vino's or Jay's are a part of our weekly lunch schedule more often than our cardiologist would think proper, and full pies from ZAZA, Damgoode or Raduno are always great for a sit-down dinner or take out. And that's just the locals — national pizza chains abound as well.
But there's always room for one more, right? Especially at a place like Capeo, a tablecloth-and-cloth-napkin place with great service and a comfortable dining room. We didn't expect any problems at all with our meal given past experiences, and the service and efficiency of the kitchen certainly lived up to the restaurant's reputation. What didn't work so much for us was the pizza.
Now, don't get us wrong, there are some good points about the pizza at Capeo. A Prosciutto D' Parma ($12) came out loaded with an ample amount of tasty prosciutto, enough that we felt the price was more than justified. A simple cheese pizza ($9.50) was a perfect canvas upon which to build a masterpiece of choose-your-own toppings like basil, mushrooms or anchovies. The mozzarella that Capeo is using is of a very good quality, which we find to be a pleasant change from the rubbery shreds that top so many of the pies we eat.
The real issue here was the crust. For starters, it's far too thick to work as a true Neapolitan-style pizza crust, and while we've nothing against a pillow-soft crust for our pizza, cooking a pie this thick in a wood-fired oven leads to texture and consistency issues that detract from the overall flavor of the pizza. A good Neapolitan pizza should be a perfectly balanced mix of tangy sauce, creamy cheese and a few toppings all working atop a light, crisp crust with just a hint of char to it. The Capeo version is overwhelmingly doughy, something that overpowers the admittedly ample toppings.
In addition to being too thick, the crust lacked flavor. Because Neapolitan pizza is such a simple affair, each element must shine in order for the dish to work, and the bland crust wasn't nearly up to the task. The best Neapolitan crusts use good sea salt to enhance the flavor of the pie, and while there may have been some salt in the crust somewhere, we couldn't taste it — and wound up picking the toppings off the crust with a fork and leaving the dough behind.
Given our disappointment with the pizza, we had high hopes that a calzone ($11) would be the thing that made our Capeo experience better. We love a good calzone, and this version allows for the choice of two fillings, so we were excited to build our own dish. We chose ground beef and pepperoni, figuring that the salty proteins would take care of any issues with the crust. Again, we were disappointed.
The crust of the calzone, while of an appropriate thickness, was again simply bland. It appeared to have been cooked correctly, with a beautiful golden-brown color, but the best cooking techniques in the world could not have saved the flavorless dough. We forged ahead, figuring that dunking our calzone into the side bowl of marinara would go a long way to helping the dish ... only to find that our marinara was ice cold. Not just cold from being away from a heat source too long — this was cold like it came straight from the cooler. The filling of the calzone was perfectly fine, if unexciting, but we found ourselves so shocked by the sauce that we couldn't finish it.
So what's the takeaway here? For us, it's the realization that making good pizza is harder than most people realize, and that success with pasta does not necessarily translate into good pizza. Capeo has a lot going for it with its pizza: The chefs obviously use a good oven, and the kitchen knows its business about getting the pies and calzones cooked perfectly. The toppings and cheeses are of the highest quality, which tells us that the restaurant is attempting to take this foray into pizza very seriously. Unfortunately, crust is more vital in Neapolitan pizza than any other type, and the flavor, texture and thickness issues sink each pie, removing all the good that kitchen skill and toppings provide.
We hope that Capeo will take a good, hard look at its crust recipe and make some modifications. Several of the other pizzas like the calamari, shrimp and scallop-laden Seafood and the mozzarella, goat cheese, gorgonzola and fontina Four Cheese caught our eye, and we hope to try them some day. This is a restaurant trying something new, and we must salute it for its efforts. We know there is talent and dedication at Capeo, which means the dough-making is just part of a series of growing pains and not an indication of any greater issue with the restaurant.
425 Main St.
North Little Rock
Not in the mood for pizza? Capeo also offers soups, salads and a selection of pasta dishes on its lunch menu, as well as one of the most popular dinner menus around.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.
OTHER INFO All major credit cards accepted, full bar.