This Week’s Featured Restaurant – Villa Capri in Carmel Valley

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Photos courtesy of Villa Capri

Photos courtesy of Villa Capri

Leave the Guilt, Take the Cannoli — Contributor Katia Graham rediscovers a Neighborhood Favorite in Carmel Valley

Enter Villa Capri in Carmel Valley Plaza and owners Antonio Viscito and Salvatore Ercolano deliver something quite refreshing in this day and age — your money’s worth. Uttering a simple yet effective “Prego” is all it takes for Viscito — who typically works the entrance and also happens to be the culinary brains behind the operation — to motion you to take a seat, leave your strip mall inhibitions behind, and delve into the surprisingly extensive wine list.

Subtle candlelight and a rustic fireplace lend a cozy feel to the room, while an array of wine-cork filled bottles and ceramics from the owners’ native Amalfi Coast add to the charm. On this Tuesday evening, eclectic jazz plays in the background amid various couples, families, and friends. Despite the other guests, you feel comfortable enough to be visiting someone’s home.

As you begin to enjoy a tantalizing bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva that didn’t come with an extraordinary mark-up, or simply sip from a glass of smooth Santa Barbara pinot noir, you decide to tackle the dinner menu. The regional Italian food featured is like the staff — inviting and unpretentious. Viscito being from Salerno and Ercolano being from Capri, the restaurant specializes in the down-home cuisine of Southern Italy.

By now, the waiter’s kindly tempted you with the specials: spicy seafood linguini, rack of lamb smothered in herbs, or ricotta-filled tortellini in meat sauce. The latter is the ultimate choice if you’re wishing to indulge in comfort food. The chef combines the cheesy pasta with ground lamb, coats it with a thick layer of mozzarella, and bakes it into a therapeutic masterpiece (expect to see this again). And yes — it is all reasonably priced. A couple can dine on appetizers, entrees, a decent bottle of wine, and dessert for about a hundred bucks, tax and tip excluded.

Villa Capri is able to satisfy the most scrutinizing of palettes or the most voracious of appetites (the servings are generous). It’s also the kind of place where many customers are too enamored with a particular dish to lightly consider ordering anything else. Fortunately, the menu itself is relatively lengthy; you’ll learn the only food items that ever change are the specials. Then again, consistency and convenience are the logic of the loyal following.

Where appetizers are concerned, the calamari all’Amalfitana is a spectacular tomato stew capable of converting anyone opposed to eating non-fried squid. It’s a safe bet the memory of Roman-style baby artichokes sautéed in olive oil, garlic, basil and parsley will linger in your mind long after you go. If you’re striving to venture outside the trusty box of Caprese salad, burrata con pomodori is a terrific compromise. The chef drizzles a sweet balsamic reduction over tomatoes, arugula, olives and a mouth-watering mound of mozzarella so creamy anyone from the Campania region would be proud.

Viscito’s straightforward Italian style is reminiscent of his days at Scalini’s, the restaurant near the Del Mar Fairgrounds. In 2000, he jumped ship to open Villa Capri, where hearty entrées reflect his traditional approach to cooking and penchant for rich sauces. The gnocchi, homemade potato dumplings with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil, nourish the soul; the veal piccata in lemon butter sauce rivals any you’ve had in the U.S.; and if you’re a seafood lover, you’ll appreciate the plates starring prawns plumped in garlic.

If you hadn’t already frequented Villa Capri, you might wonder how a strip mall sensation runs so efficiently. Perhaps you’re trying to figure out how this Italian oasis exists just a few shops away from Vons. Or maybe you’d like to know why Il Fornaio, with its more exciting downtown Del Mar location, doesn’t always provide the same quality of service….

The truth is the proprietor’s been turning out restaurants since the ‘80s. Ercolano’s originally responsible for New York’s Upper West Side gem Meza Luna, the Zagat-acclaimed Bella Luna and Paper Moon in San Diego’s Gaslamp District, and even boasts a restaurant in Hong Kong on his resume. Thus, it’s rather fitting knowledge Villa Capri has sister eateries in North County: Villa Capri 2 in Santaluz; Capri Blu in 4S Ranch, and Come on In in La Jolla.

There’s a good chance you won’t squeeze in the fluffy tiramisu and you’ll wind up taking the Sicilian cannoli to go. But as you’re bid “Prego” once more on your way back to suburban reality, odds are you’ll be pretty darn pleased. And you didn’t even have to cross the Atlantic…just the 56.

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