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The Argenta neighborhood in downtown North Little Rock is thriving as a hub of art, theater and innovation. But it's had its share of restaurant casualties, not surprising in such a fickle industry. Starving Artist is gone, as is Cornerstone (really more a bar than a restaurant) and Argenta Market, the successor to Argenta Seafood Co.
Argenta Seafood opened to significant fanfare in 2007 but lasted little more than a year. It was the second project by Eric and Brian Isaac, who four years earlier had opened Ristorante Capeo at 425 Main St. — a neighborhood pioneer. But while Argenta Seafood and its successor are just memories, Ristorante Capeo hasn't just survived — it has thrived.
A full house on a Tuesday evening in early August proved that. We brought area newcomers who, like us, enjoyed the thin, crisp Ferrara breadsticks available on the table with smears of soft butter. They also enjoyed the voluminous wine list that leans Italian but has plenty of other choices. A half-bottle of Francis Coppola chardonnay was a value at $17.
You can enjoy a meal at Capeo no matter how deeply financially committed you are. There are intriguing choices in the $7-$11 range on the antipasti/appetizers list, and you can center a meal around the pastas on the primi piatti/first-plate section, most at $10-$11. Or go ahead and step up to the secondi piatti/second-plate entrees ($22-$45).
We started with the "fried fish" ($9.50): calamari, scallop pieces and shrimp in a light batter with a significant dose of Italian herbs. There was only one shrimp, but the squid and scallops were bounteous.
"The Hunter" ($11.50) is a charcuterie plate featuring high-quality prosciutto, mortadella, salami and capicola with a half-link of fennel-heavy homemade Italian sausage. Accompanying are tomatoes (high-quality, in-season stuff), peppers, olives and artichoke. We've made a meal of it before and will again.
Our guests chose the lamb shank ($26) and the veal scallopini ($30). Both opted for a salad — one house, one Caesar — which added $7 and $8 to their tabs, respectively, for smallish, standard-issue versions of each. The innocent sounding "would you like your veal on a bed of spaghetti?" added another $5 to the tab for what looked like about 30 cents worth of noodles.
The veal scallopini wasn't as thinly pounded as most, but was flavorful. There were a few fatty bites, but with artichokes, tomatoes and portabellas, overall the veal got a thumbs-up. The lamb shank was rich, fall-off-the-bone tender and served with hunks of potatoes in a potent broth.
One guest stayed with the first-plate section, choosing spaghetti carbonara ($10) for his entree. Capeo's carbonara was a different take — not at all creamy like the menu suggested and with not much discernable cheese. Rather it was a lighter, lemonier version of the classic dish with plenty of parsley and just a few crispy bites of pancetta. Different, but tasty.
We inquired and learned the panna cotta, creme brulee and tiramisu are made in-house, while the chocolate mousse, sorbetto and gelato are not. We opted for one local honey and saffron panna cotta ($7) and three forks. It's a creamier, looser version of custard, a rich "cooked cream" with a good dose of vanilla and accented with blueberries.
Besides the bread sticks, Capeo serves crusty, artisan bread straight from the oven. It chooses not to put salt and pepper on the table, which is fine, but an offer of cracked black pepper on entrees would be appreciated.
Ristorante Capeo is an altogether comfortable and friendly place. The atmosphere across both dining rooms is pleasantly boisterous, lively but not too loud to drown out conversation. Exposed brick walls are adorned with nicely framed art posters and prints. The light is low but sufficient. Combine the ambiance and food and it's not hard to understand why Capeo is still rocking after more than a decade.
A postscript: The combo grocery-restaurant space that was Argenta Market is to be reborn soon as Good Food by Ferneau and Travis McConnell's Butcher and Public.