The pomodoro sauce at Capo restaurant in South Boston is a deceptively simple, slow-simmered, basil-intense tomato sauce that is exceptionally delicious clinging to strands of homemade spaghetti, as a base for chicken Parmigiana, or as an accompaniment to flavorsome, soft, spongy meatballs. Truth be told, it’s just as good cold, out of the fridge the next morning. If red sauce is the lifeblood of Italian-American restaurants, Capo could convert me to vampirism.
Born and raised in the North End, chef Tony Susi has the cred to preside over a pizza and pasta palace in traditionally Irish-American Southie — and the coglioni to helm a restaurant whose name is an Italian word for “mob captain.” Susi used to own a tiny, 25-seat, modern Italian restaurant in the North End called Sage. When Sage moved to larger digs outside the ’hood, business slumped and Susi relocated to New York, where he was executive chef at W New York Union Square. More recently, he’s been consulting around town and helping out friends like Dante deMagistris at Il Casale in Lexington.
Finally, Susi is back where he belongs — behind a Boston stove. Opened in mid-February, Capo is the latest venture from the group that operates hot Southie haunts Lincoln Tavern and Loco Taqueria. They’ve converted the West Broadway Dollar City into a cavernous 300-seater with brick and repurposed wood walls, globular lighting, white tile floors, two long bars that run the length of the building, and a stone fireplace in the rear. Ask to sit in one of the cozy wooden booths that run down the middle of the front room. Who’s the clientele? Several generations of casually dressed Italian-food fans who live nearby.
Susi — a burly guy with shaved head, soul patch, and ready smile — commands the spacious open kitchen, with its oak-fired brick pizza oven center stage. The oven produces a thin-crust pie with charred bottom and lovely chew. It’s an ideal base for the red, white, and green (tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil leaf) Italian flag toppings of a classic Neapolitan pizza Margherita. Presented on a rectangular wooden peel, the pizza could easily serve one as an entree or be shared by several people as part of a small-plates meal.
You could come here only for pizza and leave happy, but you’d sell yourself (and Susi) short. You’d miss crisp-shelled, creamy-centered lobster arancini (rice balls), speckled with lobster meat, that you dip into spicy pink Sriracha aioli. Pureed potato croquettes explode in your mouth at a bite. Clams are roasted with slab bacon, garlic, and cannellini beans and served with country bread crostini. I hereby nominate Capo’s souffle-light pork and beef meatballs for a “Boston’s best meatballs” medal. For maximum effect, order them in tandem with the basil-icious spaghetti pomodoro.
Susi cooks such North End staples as they’re intended to be cooked — simply, honestly, and (consider $25 veal saltimbocca) affordably, dished up in portions that his Abruzzese grandmother would have approved. Even when he creatively riffs on an old standard — like substituting escarole for romaine and unconventionally adding black olive paste to a Caesar salad — he doesn’t compromise the essential nature of a Caesar: crunchy greens, garlicky croutons, lemony dressing, and briny anchovies. This is a menu driven by ingredients, not the chef’s ego. Susi’s less has me wanting more.
The aforementioned veal is large as a dinner plate. Pounded thin, layered with sage leaves and prosciutto, and sautéed tender in butter and white wine, it’s memorably marvelous. Chicken Parmigiana is another ginormous slab of pounded meat, battered, pan-fried, and topped with melted mozzarella and more of that splendid tomato sauce. Bone-in, double-cut pork chop is a tricky cut to grill because it’s so thick. The Capo chop is unhappily uneven — part overdone and dry, part medium-rare and juicy. The eager-to-please wait staff could save themselves extra footsteps by bringing takeout containers when they serve the main courses. Entrees are that big.
Susi sautés plump monkfish medallions in butter, lemon, and capers for a perfect piccata. Cioppino, the Italian-American shellfish stew invented in San Francisco, overflows with lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, and monkfish, but there’s not nearly enough savory broth, and promised chile pepper piquancy is AWOL. Grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) has a meaty texture and taste that may appeal to non-fish eaters. It’s super, strewn with watercress-fennel-grapefruit-orange salad.
The pork is served with smoky, sweet-and-sour green beans and wilted chard, the monkfish with grilled new potatoes, and the veal with cipollini onions. Other entrees fly solo, so you may want to order a side veggie and/or pasta.
Vegetables — like roasted cauliflower with sweet parsley salsa verde and grilled asparagus spears with lemon and sea salt — are straightforward and minimalist. House-made pastas are available in either half or full bowls. The rigatoni Bolognese would garner raves in Bologna — although Susi might switch out the disconcertingly sharp, shaved ricotta salata garnish for Parmigiano or Pecorino. Heavy-handed grated Parm tramples the fragile sweetness of spring pea-stuffed ravioli in melted butter. There’s nothing fragile about the bold flavors of bucatini tossed with crabmeat, ramps, fava beans, and feisty pickled red chiles.
With bar manager Kevin Mabry (jm Curley) overseeing spirits, drinking at Capo is as much fun as dining. Try Mabry’s Godfather-inspired Don Corleone (Don Julio blanco tequila, Pierre Ferrand dry Curacao, blood orange, lime) or a medicinally herbaceous, high-test Contessa (Tanqueray gin, Aperol, Noilly Prat Blanc). There’s a smart, bottle-for-every-pocketbook, all-Italian wine list. Budget-conscious diners will applaud the wine-on-tap program, featuring Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, and French rose in a glass, carafe, or jug.
Save space for desserts, including ultra-moist olive oil cake with mascarpone and honey and mini cannoli filled with chocolate-flecked ricotta. The espresso liqueur-soaked tiramisu sprinkled with bitter chocolate brittle is an NC-17 confection, designed for adult palates.
In the current culinary cycle, in which Italian-American fare has been eclipsed by the regional Italian cuisines, favored by faddish fooderati, Capo brings some much-deserved respect to spaghetti and meatballs. Abandon all snobbery, ye who enter here, and be satisfyingly well fed.
443 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-993-8080. www.caposouthboston.com
All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices: Appetizers $5-$12. Entrees $10-$29. Desserts $6-$9.
Hours: Mon-Fri 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Sat & Sun 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Noise Level: Loud
What to order: Spaghetti pomodoro, meatballs, escarole Caesar, veal saltimbocca,
monkfish piccata, tiramisu.
Mat Schaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.