Capizzi’s menu is filled with authentic Italian dishes, just like Grandma used to make
by Jessica Jones-Gorman • photos by robert nuzzie
When Joe Calcagno was just a kid, he learned the art of pizza making at his father’s restaurant and watched his grandparents cook traditional Italian dishes from scratch. In fact, food was such a major part of the young man’s upbringing, it seemed natural for him to open his own restaurant at the age of 19 and go on to create a total of seven other dining concepts. But when he opened Capizzi in Hell’s Kitchen in 2010, Calcagno reverted back to his childhood and drew inspiration from those weekly cooking sessions. “Capizzi is a throwback to those weekends in my grandmother’s kitchen when the whole family gathered together and made everything from scratch,” he said. “We rolled all the pasta by hand, baked our own bread, and crushed the tomatoes ourselves. Those are the flavors and the recipes that brought our family together. So I thought that is the same concept we should focus on in the restaurant.”
Calcagno gathered all of his grandmother’s recipes and imported all of his raw materials from Italy, stocking his kitchen with sea salt, fresh garlic, herbs, and olive oil. He named the restaurant in honor of the town where his grandmother was born.
“Here, we don’t buy anything other than raw ingredients. We make it all ourselves,” Calcagno said. “We hang the peppers and crush them, and only use real San Marzano tomatoes because they…speak for themselves.”
The concept, along with the décor—a mismatched compilation of items from the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that resembled Calcagno’s grandmother’s tastes—was a hit, scoring the chef segments on the Travel Channel, CBS News, and The Steve Harvey Show. After noticing a regular flow of diners migrating from the outer boroughs, Calcagno decided to take this culinary theory to Staten Island.
“At the time, I owned La Bella on Hylan Boulevard,” he said. “It was a successful restaurant, but I thought this concept would resonate with Staten Island residents even better. So in 2015, we changed it over to reflect the Capizzi model.”
Calcagno then hired a team of chefs who shared his vision.
“I told them not to bring me recipes that they’ve cooked at other restaurants or researched online,” he said. “I wanted dishes that come from the heart, that come from their family…comfort food they ate as children.”
Oscar Palaguchi and Stefy Fiuzelli serve as the restaurant’s executive chefs, Flori Paliri handles pizza while Margarito Baltazar is the resident pasta maker. Together with Calcagno, they brainstorm and create new dishes daily.
“Most of our menu is ‘vero Italiano,’ (“real Italian”), not the washed down Italian American cooking you get at other restaurants on Staten Island,” Calcagno said. “These are dishes you get in Italy and there, food isn’t just about taste, it’s about how it affects the body two hours after you eat it. It’s a purist approach to cooking, using simple, fresh ingredients and a light amount of seasoning.”
The owner explained that it is a good time for this concept to flourish, because cooking shows have helped make international tastes more mainstream.
“Years ago, people didn’t appreciate Bufala mozzarella or aged Parmesan cheese,” Calcagno said.
“My parents would use those authentic ingredients at home but make different food at in the restaurant, because the American palate wasn’t accustomed to it. Even when we first changed La Bella over to Capizzi, some diners were hesitant. Now everyone is a foodie, and if you watch any cooking channel, you understand the benefits of working with true extra virgin olive oil, for example.”
And that acceptance allows Calcagno to create some unique dishes.
“Last night, we took some aged Parmigiano Reggiano and combined it with Nutella and crushed walnuts; most people wouldn’t think of combining chocolate with cheese, but it’s actually a wonderful taste.”
To Calcagno, that brand of tradition-meets-experimentation is what makes his restaurant unique.
“This is real, pure Italian food,” he said. “We serve cheese platters with black truffles and Asiago. We do our lasagna with thin layers of fresh pasta, Bolognese, and a Bechamel sauce. We have an Italian version of mac-and-cheese baked with burrata, truffles, and cherry tomatoes. Our eggplant appetizer is served with cheese and honey. But that’s how Italians eat; ingredients that grow together are generally used in the same dish.”
Chef specialties include a homemade casarecce (a type of pasta shaped like a narrow, twisted and rolled tube) with sausage and broccoli rabe, and a fennel salad with sea salt, pepper, a fresh squeezed orange, and extra virgin olive oil, produced by a Tuscan-based company which Calcagno owns himself. That pasta is rolled and crimped by hand daily, by the way, before the lunch rush starts.
“It’s all about the freshness,” Calcagno said. “Our food is labor intensive, but that’s what makes it so good.”
Just like grandma used to make.
“When I was kid and I got in trouble in school or had some type of problem, I would go home, sit, and have a good meal, and all of my troubles would disappear,” the owner concluded. “And that’s what Capizzi is all about. When you come here, you leave your troubles at the door, take a vacation from life’s BS for an hour or two, and just enjoy a good, home-cooked meal.”
4126 Hylan Boulevard / 718.569.3180