24 April 2009

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to Isle of Capri?"

Typically, the restaurants I profile in the Eater feature "Who Goes There?" have long been on my radar; I just have never eaten the places in question. The Isle of Capri, however, is different. I didn't even know this restaurant existed until a month ago, when I passed it by chance and was attracted by the overall oddness of its appearance. In doing some research, I found precious few accounts of it in guides or on the internet. I was stunned to fine out it has been founded in 1955. It's funny I never saw it before, since its just down the block from Gino, Le Veau d'Or and Subway Inn—all favorites of mine. Something the East Side in the lower 60s makes time stand still.

Who Goes There? Isle of Capri

Going to the Isle of Capri, an Italian joint that has held down the southwest corner of 61st Street and Third Avenue since 1955, is like intruding on someone’s suburban house on the occasion of a large family gathering of moderate significance. I was greeted by at least four members of the owning Lamanna family within a minute after passing through the door, each with a kindly but inquiring face that seemed to say, “Who are you, and what are you doing in my home?” During my dinner there, the various clan members never ceased crossing the room, talking with friends, checking on things and generally hovering.

Some acquaintance of the family enters the eatery roughly every ten minutes, it seems. “Wine?” asked a waiter straight out of central casting (dignified air, romantic accent, pencil-thin moustache) of a beefy businessman regular. “Surprise me,” said the eater. “Are you begin taken care of?” asked another employee minutes later. “I’m always taken care of here,” said the businessman. “It’s like being at home. Maybe, it’s better.”

The living-room-like air extends to the odd, musty smell of cats that hits you when you come in. The main, red dining room is full of arches and alcoves, metalwork, cheesy statuary and family photos. If you wish to dine in private, there are many cubby holes in which to do so. The clientele is aged and loyal. (“Best Italian food in New York!” barked a diner, unsolicited, as I examined a menu while still outside. I had the veal medallions with mozzarella and prosciutto and it was perfectly fine.) The men had lived-in faces, while an alarming number of the women vaguely resembled Sylvia Miles.

The Isle of Capri has a superfluity of help. No one goes unattended to for long. The business, I was informed, began as a cafĂ©, founded by Vincenzo and Maria Lamanna. Over time, they began selling cheese and prosciutto, until finally converting into a full restaurant. People still refer to a major renovation that occurred more than three decades ago. It appears to currently be run by Vincenzo’s two middle-aged daughters. The place once had a loftier reputation. Craig Claiborne praised it in the Times as “the best small Italian restaurant in New York,” and 1975 and 1976 seals of approval from Cue magazine (!) remain in the window. The family owns the building, ensuring that the Isle of Capri will remain an incongruous oddity on slick, anonymous Third Avenue as long as the Lamanna clan are desirous of a public forum in which to entertain their friends and relatives.
—Brooks of Sheffield


Unknown said...

In the 80s, the space upstairs was called "The Magic Townhouse." Not sure if it was owned by the restaurant, but it used the same entrance. It was a very popular birthday party venue!

M.Lane said...

This sounds like just my sort of place. I'll try it the next time I am in town. Thanks! As always, a great job.


Sarah Goodyear said...

I used to eat there for special occasions with my mother back in my 70s childhood. I loved it. It seemed like the best restaurant in the world to me. I still feel sort of excited every time I walk by it...scared that going back would destroy the magic, though.

Simeon said...

It's actually a favorite when I find myself in that around dinner time. It closes a little early (I remember the kitchen closing around 9:30 or so) and it's slightly pricey, but the old-style food and decor are well worth it.

Le Chat Noir said...

Montgomery Clift used to eat here
in the 1950's all the time....his townhouse was right down the street.