Tip your fedora to this North Beach mainstay, whose family-style options include classic Italian dishes done right
My first experience of Capp's Corner was long ago, in college, a melancholy dinner on a damp winter night with my first love. By "long ago," I mean so long ago that I decline to say how long. By "first love" I mean unrequited love; is there any other kind of first love? I suppose the possibility exists. But for the moony-eyed young, the most real sort of love is the hopeless, thwarted kind, the impossible dream. In that sense, I had won the love lottery at age 20. Lucky me.
It does seem odd, lo these decades later, to associate Capp's Corner with any form of melancholy. Now, as then, the restaurant is not only a North Beach institution but the very picture of cheerfulness. Its checkertop tablecloths are just like the kind you see in Moonstruck, a not-bad movie about lovelornness, with wonderful glimpses of New York's Little Italy. There is also a certain saloon feel at Capp's, lent by the large bar near the entrance; unlike many so-called bars in many of our newer, fancier, and more effete places that seem to have been installed largely for show, this one is the real deal, a working bar where people actually sit and drink.
Elsewhere in the large dining room, people are eating as well as drinking, sometimes in groups of two, often in larger arrays. The restaurant is just down the block from Club Fugazi, longtime home of Beach Blanket Babylon. That's a show people often attend in sizable groups, and often after having eaten dinner. Capp's Corner is just the (meal) ticket for these folks; it's convenient, spacious, practiced in dealing with bigger parties, and it serves many dishes family-style, no matter what kind of family you're a part of.
The main twist in the family-style service is that the minestrone is presented in a big white earthenware tureen, so you get to serve yourself. This does raise the slop factor, particularly if I happen to be sitting at your table, but it also contributes to festivity. The soup itself was rich in cabbage and cannellini beans, a little lighter on tomato than is usual, and had a savory-sweetness I associate with slow-cooked onion. Our tureen produced eight or nine servings — not a bad yield for a table of six.
Throw in a continually replenished basket of bread and butter, and you have the makings of a small feast. Beyond that was a salad of chopped, chilled lettuces scattered with chickpeas and kidney beans and dressed with what the menu calls a "creamy vinaigrette" — I might call it Thousand Island, Russian, or something similar on the ground that its pinkish-red color implied the presence of tomato in some form.
The family-style dinners are offered at two prices: $18 (for pastas) and $20.50 (for pretty much everything else, including veal and petrale sole). You can get a pair of fleshier dinners (steak and osso buco) for $25.50, and if you don't want family-style, $15.50 buys you pasta, soup, and salad.
If you like your pasta served in gargantuan portions, you will be happy here — and you'll be even happier if you like tomato sauces. These, whether marinara or bolognese, are hard to avoid, although a white-wine sauce does pop up here and there. The spaghetti with meatballs was probably typical, though: a huge clump of pasta (cooked a bit past al dente but not mushy) finished with a heavy ladling of bolognese sauce and two orbs of chopped meat the size of a baby's fist. The meat seemed a bit dry to me, but given all that sauce, it didn't much matter.
The veal tortellini were better: less daunting in scale, nicely bite-sized, and given a sun-dried tomato cream sauce that was finer than the bolognese. Also satisfying: slices of breaded eggplant baked with mozzarella and marinara and béchamel (or, in Italian, besciamella) sauces. The bitterness of the eggplant had been expertly leached out, and the dish as a whole had a faux-meatiness that might have convinced an omnivore — or at least an omnivore distracted, perhaps, by a value-priced glass, or three, of Chianti ($3.50). I wouldn't call Chianti my first love, wine-wise, but it tends to be solid. Anyway, it's the only sort of wine you could drink with a clear conscience in a place like this, with a lovers' moon peeking through the windows and BBB — the greatest hat show on earth — just a few steps away.
Dinner: Mon.-Fri., 4:30–10:30 p.m.;
Sat.–Sun., 4-11 p.m.
Lunch: daily, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
1600 Powell, SF
Noisy but bearable