Photo by Jack GouldWhen Capriccio Italiano Ristorante opened in 1986, Ronald Reagan was making a worldwide ass out of Americans, and Capriccio was a humble place next door to a 31 Flavors and a few doors down from an auto-parts store. Inside, it was almost strip-mall stock, as if the restaurateurs had mustered so little faith in their future in the savage business of feeding people that they could do no more than hang a few plastic plants and old-country travel posters. The place looked ready to pack up and move in a single, desperate night. Only the floor—big, rose-colored tiles imported from Italy—suggested permanence; everything else screamed Harbor Boulevard or Beach or Bristol, including the piped-in easy-listening music. Everything but the food, that is. Then as now, the food and service were fabulous, evidence that even in Mission Viejo—as planned-down-to-the-house-paint as Irvine—human creativity could be discouraged but not completely outlawed.
The exterior is still hopeless; you're likely to drive past Capriccio's anonymous storefront without a glance. (Its sister operations, both called Sapori, in the Tustin Marketplace and a Newport Beach strip center are only a little less modest.) But now Capriccio's interior is more upscale—or whatever comes right after upscale: during a recent visit, we noticed that the much-anticipated renovation had proceeded a couple of steps past sophisticated (soft lights, muted paint, fine woods on the bar and kitchen rail) and ended up somewhere around gauche, like the Mercedes-Benz license plate that reads, "MY BENZ. The seating is New York-style:_tables packed so closely that if the person next to you burps, you're likely to thump your own chest and say, "Excuse me."
But the food is as stirring as ever, the service is attentive, and, after a glass of warming Chianti, the electric guitarist playing "Something in the Way" and the theme song from M*A*S*H to a karaoke backup disappears beneath the buzz of conversation.
Or maybe that's buzzed conversation. The wine list is long, and the waiters, though mostly Italians, brag up the California varieties. Nevertheless, we ordered the 1995 Nozzole Chianti. We are not wine aficionados; the name and year meant nothing to us besides the fact that, wherever Nozzole is, the Italians there produce a good bottle—and the cheapest one here, at $28.
Capriccio has always baked its own breads, and on this evening, it being later than usual for dinner, we bolted the delightfully sour sourdough, devoured the house salad (heavy on the garlic and illuminated by the reddest tomato slices) and glugged the Chianti with dispatch.
Which may explain why we took so long over our entrées. Between the intoxicating Chianti and the promise of the much-praised after-dinner tiramisù, we waffled. We had started out thinking meat—veal shank, maybe, or chicken breast—but were ultimately drawn toward the lighter end of the menu, to pastas, shrimp and mussels. The penne quattro formaggi was perfect, redolent of at least two of its four potent cheeses—the powerful Swiss and Gorgonzola—with just a whisper of hamminess. The linguine Costa Azzura was an ocean of great, oddly paired tastes —artichoke and shrimp, garlic and clams, cream and mussels. We snorfled up the scampi in cognac and drank in the flavorful pasta in a vodka cream sauce.
And we saved room for dessert. Capriccio's tiramisù has been judged the best in Orange County. And if you're into that sort of thing, it's certainly wonderful—beautiful in presentation, creamy, sweet and slightly sexy but not a damned lush. I passed, however, preferring my dessert in a demitasse—two shots, please, and don't be stingy with the sugar.
CAPRICCIO ITALIANO RISTORANTE, LOCATED AT 25380 MARGUERITE PKWY., MISSION VIEJO, IS OPEN FOR LUNCH MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-2:30 P.M.; DINNER EVERY DAY FROM 4:30 P.M. "UNTIL WE FEEL LIKE CLOSING." (949) 855-6866. DINNER FOR TWO, $20, FOOD ONLY. FULL BAR. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.