Perhaps Jim Rua opened Cafe Capriccio on a whim, as the name implies, but more than 25 years later it has come to mean enduring.
Husband Eric once pulled one of Rua’s cookbooks from the shelf and offered it to me: “This is how we should be cooking: simple, and with good ingredients.” Pages 89 (linguine with olive oil, garlic, and herbs) and 110 (egg noodles with goat cheese, prosciutto, spinach, and cream) are dog-eared. As much as we are inclined to throw a big fat rib eye steak onto the barbecue, we recognize that pasta, cooked right with high-quality ingredients, is a better choice for so many reasons.
WHERE: 49 Grand Street, Albany. Phone 465-0439 or www.cafecapriccio.com
WHEN: Open 5:30 p.m. daily
HOW MUCH: $114.05
MORE INFO: MasterCard, American Express, Visa, Discover, Diners Club. Not wheelchair accessible. Park on street or in adjacent city lot after 5 p.m. Accommodations made for children’s meals.
”A reservation is always a good idea,” I was told when I called the restaurant one recent weeknight. Cafe Capriccio is cozy and intimate with room for only 50 people. So it’s a good idea for you, too.
Companion Virginia and I found a parking spot on Grand Street and headed down the three steps into the restaurant. It’s neither night nor day inside Cafe Capriccio — the outside stimulus is minimized, so you can focus on the food and your companions. The knotty pine paneling and vinyl padded booths are now retro-cool, but white linens, candles and soft lighting, and jazz music make it attractively somber. We saw a few booths in the bar, which was buzzing with men in business suits gripping mixed drinks.
The staff works in a team system, and a front waiter lighted the candle and settled us in, reciting the specials. The menu at Cafe Capriccio changes daily, with no more than six or seven starters, pasta dishes, and entrees, but enough that we had trouble deciding among them.
Virginia started with a small plate of artichoke and sun-dried tomato ravioli ($12), big al dente fresh pasta pillows with a smooth, creamy ricotta filling. Though the artichoke flavor didn’t come through as strongly as the sun-dried tomatoes, when taken with the fresh sauce, the ravioli were a hit.
I started with a fresh garden salad ($8), perfect miniature greens tossed with sweet sliced tomatoes. The lettuce was chilled and tartly dressed, and the tomatoes at room temperature, soaked in seasoned oil. They met on my plate in perfect balance.
We munched on homemade crusty bread and fruity olive oil while I gazed at the small bowl of grated Romano cheese and its delicate serving spoon. The cheese was granular and pale yellow, with enough texture to bite back at you, and I wanted to tip the bowl into my bag and bring it home. I used it on everything, and generously.
The waiter helped Virginia choose among the entrees. “The puttanesca [$20] is my favorite,” he said. And it was lovely to behold, tangles of fresh tagliatelle tossed with a fiery red sauce loaded with capers and plump glossy kalamata olives. “Just spicy enough,” she said. The flavor of the sauce just permeated the flesh of the almond-shaped olives. It’s a robust, satisfying and delicious dish, and now Virginia recommends it, too.
I’m glad Virginia was so pleased with her dinner, because there was a polite discussion earlier about who got to order the risotto special, and I prevailed. Risotto della Sera ($25) is made with fresh pork sausage, roasted red pepper, and sweet snow peas, a simple combination of outstanding ingredients. The peas were sweet and new, and the homemade pork sausage was seasoned with fennel, I think. I tasted all the things you’re supposed to use to make risotto, like white wine, and admired the execution of the dish. The rice is smooth and creamy without being saturated in sauce, and al dente but not the slightest bit chewy.
Service remained attentive during the meal, and the atmosphere of fine dining was sustained. Plates were cleared promptly, silverware replaced, glasses refilled, and crumbs swept, all unobtrusively and smoothly. The pace was just right. I wasn’t surprised to learn that there isn’t much turnover of staff.
A back waiter brings out the food, clears tables, and takes dessert orders. Ours knowledgeably discussed the desserts, explaining that they were homemade or provided by a specialty local purveyor. If you like dessert, you must save room when you dine at Cafe Capriccio. The chocolate cappuccino cheesecake ($8) is light and mousse-like, with a dark, almost black, chocolate cookie crust. It’s cross-hatched with more chocolate, but the overall effect is not overly sweet. It’s one of the best desserts I’ve tasted in a long time.
The strawberry tart ($8) had a cookie-like base topped with excellent cooked pastry cream, and strawberries artfully arranged on the top. The whole meal was outstanding, and the out-of-season strawberries paled in comparison. My own fault, of course, for expecting them to be perfect out of season. It was a lovely dessert, sure to please anyone except the most particular.
The tab for this skillfully executed and graciously presented meal, with a soda and coffee, came to $114.05. You don’t last in this business for so long unless you’re doing something very right, and Rua has done it with integrity and without compromises. He plans to turn the restaurant over to his son, Franco, whom he has dubbed “Master of the Kitchen.” We can look forward to many more years of excellent dining at Cafe Capriccio.