Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
The buzz around Capo's started about a year ago.
"Have you heard? Tony... Tony Tony, of Tony's Pizza Napoletana, is opening a new place. A deep dish place. Somewhere in North Beach."
Indeed, Tony Gemignani, he of pizza award-winning fame and the always-packed Tony's Pizza Napoletana is opening a deep dish place in North Beach, this Friday night. Nestled tidily on Vallejo off Columbus, a glowing neon sign reads "Capo's," subtly staking its claim in a neighborhood where authenticity, and quality, are prized about as highly as a good whiskey cocktail and a solid slice.
"I want this place to feel like it's the last man standing, like it's been here for 50 years," Gemignani told us, arms draped around the polished wood curvature of a red leather booth.
Named for Al Capone, the close, cozy space evokes an immediate throwback. Replete with seven tons of 100-year-old Chicago brick and a hand-painted pressed tin ceiling from Queens, Capo's certainly doesn't feel like a newcomer. The restaurant's cash-only policies further speak to its old school tendencies; reservations are only taken by phone, and you can find a phone booth tucked in the back corner where you can call anyone in the U.S. for free. The air is warm with garlic and oregano, and Tony jovially calls out to his staff as he takes us through the inspiration behind the menu, and Capo's itself.
"I've been in the industry for more than 20 years, and I've been to Chicago a lot," he says. "There are so many different styles of pizza, so many classic dishes, so much history. It needed its own restaurant."
This single-focus concept is a decided shift from Tony's North Beach flagship, which currently features ten varieties of pizza, from California to Detroit to Italian. If Tony's Pizza Napoletana acts as a tasty crash course in pizza education, Capo's in an immersion into a traditional Chicago food culture that's largely unknown out West.
"We're making very traditional comfort food, nothing too out of the box," Gemignani tells us. "But these are items that are largely forgotten, or never really made it out West. Even in Chicago the concept has gotten a little lost, but when it's done right it can be special."
Meaning, you'll find dishes like a Chicken Vesuvio ($19), a bone-in leg and thigh cooked in white wine, garlic, lemon and peas alongside baked pasta dishes like a wood fired Mostaccioli ($15 with meat, $17 with pesto and chicken).
And of course, there's pizza. There are seven toppings combinations (plus build-your-own options), each available in four crust varieties: Chicago cracker thin, deep dish, cast iron pan, and stuffed. The latter three are not vegetarian ("There's something in there!" Gemignani says, laughing, declining to reveal his secrets).
"When you look at my pizza, you see a little bit of Lou Malnati's, what Giordano's used to be, some of Connie's in the cast-iron, a little bit of everything," he says. "I want to pay tribute."
Of course, while Capo's may be Chicago in its roots, it's certainly got a little bit of San Francisco at its core. The pizza boxes, for example, were designed by local artist Jeremy Fish. Gemignani is also placing particular emphasis on Capo's cocktail program, designed by Tony's bar manager Elmer Majicanos.
"When you think of Prohibition in Chicago, you think of bourbon whiskey." In that spirit, Capo's features over 100 whiskies, ranging from straight bourbon to Japanese and European varieties.
In addition to ample amounts of the brown stuff, Capo's art deco bar hosts a number of beers (Goose Island, of course) and wines on tap. Wine director Marni McKirahan noted that the list is more compact than Tony's, and was "designed to go hand-in-glove with the food. There aren't any light reds on the list!" she tells us, gesturing at the expansive plates of rib-sticking red sauce on our table.
The conviviality of the staff, and the crackle of excitement surrounding the impending opening further emphasizes how excited Gemignani and his team are to open their doors to the neighborhood.
"I always wanted to do what was different when I was young," he says. "Now what excites me is perfecting the classics, doing something that's been done for 100 years and making it true to style."
About the author: Lauren Sloss is a bicoastal food-lover who is based in San Francisco. Some of her favorite things include The Black Keys, goat gouda, and guacamole. You can follow her on Twitter @laurensloss.