It's a cliche to make disappointed, critical remarks about restaurants in Little Italy. Therefore, I should find something imaginative and cheerful to say about Capriccio: "What a lTC pleasant surprise it was to find . . ." "We expected conventional tastes but discovered that . . ." Unfortunately, though, dinner at Capriccio was expensive and very uninspired.
We planned to order simple dishes and tried to avoid whatever could arouse our prejudices. We wanted not to order misspelled dishes (a personal and essentially indefensible irritation), like clams cassino, clams oregenate, Mediterranian salad and tortellini alla creama.
We steered clear of meats with melted cheeses (chicken breasts stuffed with provolone, chicken breasts with Swiss cheese, veal with provolone, veal with Swiss cheese, veal with mozzarella, shrimp with mozzarella), and French dishes (escargots, mussels poulet [!]). In the end, though, we still ended up with an un-Italian steak Diane and a misspelled veal saltimbocca.
As is so often the case in Little Italy, bread tasted like a product of Maranto's, those masters of bread with little taste, some texture, and one salient virtue: Few of us ever end up overeating it. As a consequence, we approached our appetizers with hearty appetites, having settled on a seafood salad special ($7.50), a seafood ravioli combination ($6.50) and a bowl of minestrone ($3.50).
The seafood salad contained small shrimp of the sort that can be bought in cans, large scallops, and a preponderance of squid. Perhaps because squid can have a powerful smell, the salad was distinctly odoriferous. However, it was unappetizing primarily because it sat in quantities of oil, which pooled in the recesses of the lettuce leaf under it and clung to the seafood's oddly fuzzy edges. The fuzziness puzzled us. Had the seafood been battered, then fried, then stripped of most ofthe batter, and soaked in a tasteless oil?
Seafood ravioli consisted of two sorts of pasta pockets, one made of white flour filled with pureed shrimp, and one of squid-ink-dyed flour filled with pureed lobster. The blond squares were fresh and pleasant, the inky ones, tough, old and smelly. Nevertheless, we liked both the light, simple tomato sauce over them and the grated Parmesan on the table. We'd approached the cheese cautiously, but found it to be fresh-grated.
A good minestrone requires intelligent marketing for fresh vegetables, and lots of cooking time. Capriccio's was a murky business, made with what tasted like a thin, spicy, dingy stew liquid. Except for some fresh carrot, its few vegetables were overcooked and mushy.
Our main courses didn't raise our spirits, and were not so modest in price that we could forgive their faults. The least
expensive, veal saltimbocca, at $16.75, consisted of several leathery sheets of veal, the edges of which were folded firmly over a slice of prosciutto. ("Prosciutto?" one of my companions queried -- both that night were experienced samplers of restaurant food. "But it tastes like scrapple!") ("Welded," said the other. "The sheet of ham's been welded to the veal.")
We wrested the two layers apart, and found dark spots between them. I took the veal home out of curiosity. The spots were powdered sage. With that settled, I threw the meat out. It had been sauced with what tasted like reduced chicken broth freshened with lemon juice.
We asked whether pasta could be ordered with something other than tomato sauce. Our waiter suggested oil and garlic. What we received was bitter and pungent with the green center that sometimes appears in garlic cloves. The cook hadn't learned to throw the green part out.
Because it didn't sound susceptible to bungling, we'd ordered scampi Capriccio, or jumbo shrimp with shallots, tarragon butter, sherry and cognac. For $19.95, we were served six (!) butterflied shrimp in an astonishing half-inch of what was maybe butter. Tomato paste clotted the accompanying pasta's tomato sauce.
Our third entree, steak Diane, cost a hefty $21.95 for what the menu said was filet mignon. The meat was stewed in a sauce acridly strong on mustard and alcohol. We liked several long branches of fresh broccoli we chose as an accompaniment, though not the quantities of buttery oil in which it was served.
We tried two pricey desserts. Tiramisu ($5.50) consisted of cake wetted with syrup touched with Kahlua, then very thinly topped with mascarpone dusted with cocoa. A house pine nut roll ($5), designed like a jellyroll, glued a folded, thick, rubbery pancake with a sweetened, thickened, flavored cream stuck with cold, wet, soft pine nuts. *
Capriccio, 846 Fawn St., 685-2710
Hours: Lunch Mondays to Fridays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.;
dinner Mondays to Fridays 2 p.m. to 11 p.m..,
Saturdays 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Sundays noon to 11 p.m.
Accepts: All major credit cards
Features: Northern Italian cooking
Next: Mount Airy Plantation