From the start, Capriccio Saratoga was envisioned as the Southern Italian counterpart to its sister establishment, Albany’s Café Capriccio. The Saratoga Springs eatery opened last summer just as that city’s racetrack madness roared to life, and thus enjoyed an inaugural season bathed in fire. It could have, should have, would have opened much earlier in the year, but there are always impediments and surprises in the restaurant business.
Which is why a wood-fired Neapolitan pizza oven had no home. It was intended for a Saratoga space that didn’t work out; chef-owner Jim Rua decided to install the oven instead at his Albany location. He never intended to serve pizza there, but it’s won a place on the menu and the oven has proven to be a boon for other dishes, such as the porchetta that will be served for Easter.
But even as Capriccio Saratoga asserts is Neapolitan identity, there has been a subtle shift of focus in Albany as well. The executive chef for both restaurants is Jim’s son, Franco, and both Ruas have traveled to Italy often enough to gain a sense of the culinary identity of various parts of that country. “Saratoga offers cucina Napolitana,” says Jim. “In Albany, it’s cucina Toscana.”
At the heart of the Saratoga kitchen is a massive Cirigliano Forni oven. You can see it from the sidewalk of Henry Street through a large soon-to-be takeout window. The wood seething within it brings the interior temperature as high as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which cooks a thin-crust pizza in 90 seconds.
“Early in the day, when we’ve just lit the oven, it could take as long as two minutes,” Franco explains, “which gives the crust a different crispness.”
The Saratoga menu emphasizes small plates. Appetizers based on seasonal vegetables, selections of cured meats and cheeses, a selection of pasta dishes—and pizzas, of course, but small, thin pies with such toppings as fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta, sliced garlic, artichokes, anchovies, spicy salami and even octopus.
A few main courses, priced from $20 to $25, include lamb shank pizzaiola, beef short ribs, brined pork chop and more. “Saratoga is more rustic,” says Franco. “We have a more casual spirit here.”
The chef de cuisine is Jordan Patregnani, who has worked at such nearby locations as Hattie’s and 43 Phila—and the Capriccio Saratoga predecessor, dine. “We let the ingredients here speak for themselves,” he says, “and we change the menu according to what we can get from area farmers.” A special for that evening, simmering on the 10-burner stove, was a veal stew made with artichokes, potatoes, English peas, asparagus, fennel and tomatoes.
Franco explains that after traveling to Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples, he decided he wanted to make Neapolitan pizza. “There’s a lot of pizza around here,” he says, “but nothing like what I tasted there. So pizza has become a significant item here, and it gets them in the door, but there’s so much more that we do.”
Meanwhile, Café Capriccio has formalized a relationship with Fattoria Lavacchio, a farmhouse winery close to Florence to which Jim has been bringing groups of tourists for several years (authorial disclosure: I’ve been one of them). “We’re working together,” says Jim, “to accurately reflect the great Tuscan culinary traditions. Tuscany is all about meat. It’s very limited. Every restaurant in Florence has ribollita, cinghiale, polenta, cured meats, chicken-liver crostini. Naples and Southern Italy show the influence of the sea. But nothing is that strict. In Sicily you find the best lamb, raised right there.”
Pizza aside, the wood-fired oven has become a key to the identity of both restaurants, as reflected in the porchetta that will be served at both for Easter. “We’re doing it the way it’s done in Florence: skin on, belly bacon, lots of herbs and garlic. We’re also going to slow-cook a shoulder of spring lamb with artichokes and fennel.”
The Saratoga location boasts an impressive pasta cooker, which features a large water bath in which individual baskets can be maneuvered. Says Franco, “Some places use a fryolator with water instead of oil, but this has a more regulated temperature. It’s hotter in the rear, which pushes the starch forward.” Dried pasta is featured in Saratoga, while fresh pasta is cooked to order in Albany. “In Albany we use wide noodles, like tagliatelle,” says Jim. “In Saratoga, in the manner of Southern Italy, we use short noodles. Another difference: We make a ragu at both places, but in Saratoga it has beef, pork, tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and oregano, while in Albany it’s made with wild boar, onions, carrots, celery, red wine and a little tomato.”
A recent first-time visitor to Tuscany is the Albany café’s chef de cuisine, Nick Gulbrandsen. “I challenged him to bring back some dishes,” says Jim, “and he was inspired to add some things to the menu, such as a mixed grill named for Fattoria Lavacchio chef Sergio Giovannoni.” It includes pork sausage, a grilled lamb chop and roasted duck leg.
Lest the restaurants should seem worlds apart, both Jim and Franco are quick to emphasize the commonality. As Franco says, “Things we do at both places include the eggplant with four cheeses, greens and beans and calamari neri. We have to do those.”
The off-the-main-stem Saratoga location has proven to be a boon. “It’s close to downtown,” Franco says, “but it’s far enough that you don’t have the noise and crowds. And the park across the street is beautiful. We’re a year-round restaurant, so it’s good for the locals. Also, farmers come in and show us their stuff. We’re building ongoing relationships with them.”
“The restaurants are close enough to share some clientele,” adds Jim, “but we don’t feel like we’re competing with ourselves.”