My earliest memory is of waking up in a restaurant. I don’t know when or where it was, but I still remember the feeling of my cheek peeling off a banquette and the dead weight of my limbs being carried through the smoky fog of a dining room. Most likely, this hazy recollection is not of a singular event, but an amalgamation of late evenings and falling asleep with hands sticky from ice cream. Restaurants have always been a central, if roving, fixture in my life. My brothers and I were brought to them regularly as children, even though it was the ’80s and ’90s, when besuited waiters and ashtrays were the norm, not baby strollers and kids menus. Though I know the location of my reverie was decidedly not Waltham’s recently shuttered Il Capriccio, my mind’s eye tells me it was a place that felt quite similar. A place where even a sleeping toddler could sense the mirth in the air.
In the summer of 2001, my family moved to Cambridge from Chicago’s Hyde Park, trading one academic neighborhood for another and broad boulevards for even broader accents. I was entering eighth grade and unhappy to leave. As I tearfully said goodbye to a school friend, her father tapped my father on the shoulder. “I understand you’re going to Boston,” he said. “Check out my brother Richie’s place — Il Capriccio.” A few months later, some colleagues took my parents to their favorite Italian spot. My father immediately recognized the name. Il Capriccio. That first evening, as was his custom, chef Rich came to greet the table. Ever the gregarious gourmand, my father introduced himself, making the Chicago connection and no doubt more conversation than a busy chef on a weekend night was prepared for.
Next year marks my parents’ 20th in Boston. It’s the longest they’ve lived anywhere but they’re still discovering the area. Though my mother is happiest at home with a simple meal and a glass of red, she often acquiesces to my father’s culinary demands, gamely weaving through one-way streets and unfamiliar neighborhoods to explore the city’s flourishing food scene. When my siblings and I return to Boston from our homes in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, the conversations revolve almost entirely around where we’ll eat. While other families plan for a day trip or a sporting event, we scroll OpenTable and Resy, sending menu links back and forth for days in advance.
Regardless of the new tapas spots or oyster bars we’d try, Il Capriccio always remained in the rotation. Though its white tablecloths and jacketed clientele evoked a more formal notion of hospitality, it was a place of inimitable warmth and comfort, a salve for everyday anxieties and preoccupations. From the moment maître d’ Nahatai Harris led us to the table until the last sip of Vin Santo was drained, my family was suspended in relaxation. But it was really the food that kept us loyal. Unlike other menus, which waffle between styles, influences, and trends, Il Capriccio’s was devoid of pretentiousness. Each ingredient and dish was there for a reason and the finished plates spoke to an earlier era of dining, where portions were intended to satisfy and tweezers weren’t found in kitchens.
My father is predisposed to over-ordering, especially when it comes to that ubiquitous, invisible diner: the table. My best friend jokes that he regularly summons the entire left side of the menu. So, our meals at Il Capriccio generally looked like this: To start, at least one order of the sublime soufflé di Porcini, which reliably vanished a few moments after arriving, glistening platters of salumi, sautéed chicken livers, the yellowfin tartare, and, at minimum, two of the salads (always the one with beet, orange, and avocado). My mother, a Pescatarian, would choose the cod or swordfish and my father the chicken schnitzel. My brothers varied their orders. I did not. Though it is a staple of every Italian restaurant the world around, the Bolognese at Il Capriccio was superlative. While the variety of pasta changed from visit to visit, the crumbs of dense, savory ragu did not. It was a flawless dish. When we celebrated my 21st birthday at Il Capriccio, I half considered deviating from my norm, given the occasion. Maturity be damned, I stuck to my guns. No regrets.
One evening in early March of this year, my parents called me. Voices relaxed, no doubt, by a few glasses of Ripasso, they told me they were on their way home from Il Capriccio. “We must come back when you’re next here,” my father said. “One hundred percent,” I heard my mother agree in the background. It would be their last meal before quarantine and their final one at the restaurant. A month later, my husband and I arrived from New York City. After weeks in confinement, we arrived with quiet fanfare, attempting a safe distance from my affectionate parents. Tests had been in short supply and we had no way of knowing if we were asymptomatic, sick but not sick, dangerous without realizing. Ten days in, the bulb of tension in my chest began to slowly unfurl. We seemed okay.
We’ve been here for two months now and have settled into a comfortable routine of privilege. We work, we cook, we read the news, and we drink. We are healthy and taken care of. We are lucky. My mother and I take our dogs on strolls around the neighborhood and on new trails every weekend. I’ve mastered focaccia and Irish soda bread and my husband has introduced my parents to the joys of grilling. But, this, of course, is a visit like none other. There are no hard stops and starts, in-person meetings or flight check-in emails. And there are no meals at Il Capriccio. It would have been the ideal place to weather such a moment. A few days after we arrived, my mother brought an envelope into the kitchen. “The post office returned it,” she said with a frown, pointing to a Waltham address in her handwriting. To help in this challenging time, she had sent checks to some of their favorite places. Our phone calls to the restaurant went unanswered. A few weeks ago, we searched online. After thirty-nine years, a lifetime in the food industry, they had closed.
Living with my parents and husband, the conversation naturally turns to two topics: moving back to Boston and starting a family. Neither is currently in the works, but one thing is for sure: My future children would have been lucky to fall asleep at Il Capriccio.
Leah Bhabha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.