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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Italian By Any Name

The Grotto and the Olive

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A two-block stretch of Old World Third Street between State and Juneau is crowded with restaurants and places to buy food. Here you will find Mader’s, Usinger’s, Asian Mart and the Spice House, to name a few. Recently a new restaurant opened at the site of the former Jewel of India. It goes by two names: One half is called Capone’s Grotto and the other is known as Little Italy Olive Oil Co. One is a bar and the other a dining room.

The interior of the old Jewel was completely remodeled, providing a refreshing change. The bar has a small stage and the walls are covered with Rat Pack photos and other ’50s and ’60s Vegas celebrities. On Friday and Saturday evenings the stage hosts musical impersonators. You can watch a fake Elvis, an imitation Neil Diamond and, as the photos imply, portrayals of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. There is no cover charge for these popular events. The bar quickly fills with cigarette smoke.

The other half is like a retro Sicilian-American restaurant, complete with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. Enter through a wood portal topped with the words “sala da pranzo” (translation: dining room). At the front window is a replica of Al Capone seated at a table with a cigar and a mug of Schlitz. However this side is smoke-free. There are many more framed photos—this time it is a selection of celebrity mobsters, including some classic mug shots.

The menu, printed on a sheet of paper with minor daily changes, offers casual Italian-American fare with predictable appetizers, sandwiches, pizzas and a few lonely entrees. Since everybody has different pizza preferences, you can create your own. Choose a size ($11.95-$13.95) and then pick from a dozen toppings at an additional cost. The basic Petey’s pizza has a thin, firm crust. The tomato sauce tastes mostly of tomato and there is plenty of mozzarella cheese. Adding pepperoni or sausage is a good idea; anchovies tend to get lost in the sauce. It is not the best pizza in town, nor is it the worst. It’s smack in the middle.

There are three pastas—lasagna, spaghetti and linguini Alfredo—all of which include a slab of garlic bread. Soup or salad comes as an extra.

Lucky’s lasagna ($9.95-$11.95) is an individual serving, the noodles layered with a bit of meat sauce and a lot of cheese. It seems nearly vegetarian. The passable Louie’s linguini Alfredo ($11.95) is served with plenty of good, creamy sauce, and Marilyn’s house salad ($3.95) is prepared with care. The leaf lettuces are very fresh and include grape tomatoes, red onions and seeded cucumber slices. Shredded mozzarella and sliced pepperoni add a bit of substance, although at one visit the pepperoni was treated as if it was as expensive as prosciutto. The dressings are the type you find at every chain restaurant; the Caesar has the flavor of ranch.

Soups fare better and change daily. The cream of mushroom ($3.95) is a puree full of woodsy flavor. Those here for the entertainment may want to focus on appetizers. There are no surprises: Expect items like bruschetta, chicken strips and mozzarella marinara. A winner is Curly’s calamari basket ($9.95), a plate of squid with a perfect light batter that is easily the best item on the menu. Ask for some lemon if the sweet marinara sauce does not please. The dash of balsamic vinegar on the small green salad makes for a better option than any of the salad dressings.

Pizza always tastes good with a Peroni, and the restaurant offers an adequate beer list. Wines are sold by the glass ($5) at refreshingly moderate prices. Service is efficient and just right for this type of place. The menu seems to be geared more toward lunches than dinners, and more entrees would be welcome. But Capone’s is a reliable stop before or after Bradley Center events. Have a beer, order a basket of calamari and then sit back and listen to a rendition of “My Way.”

Capone’s Grotto/ Little Italy Olive Oil Co. 1007 N. Old World Third St. (414) 224-6000 $-$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes


Capone’s Grotto | Photos by Kate Engbring / Miranda Chaput

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