Capitano, Carlton

Where: Capitano, 421 Rathdowne Street Carlton

What: The best iteration of the viral pasta alla vodka you’ll taste in Melbourne

Who: Beer Jenga Master, Skin Contact White Drinker, Helen Garner’s Best Friend, Gingko Leaf Girl, Proud Perthian, Ox Tongue Soul Sister, Mr WFYB, Mama WFYB, Papa WFYB

Bloat score: 2 – The belt had to be completely removed

Italian-American restaurant Capitano was one of those places I’d heard so much about when it opened in 2018, before finally paying a visit to celebrate my birthday in 2019 – the good times when you were assured of a celebration despite being born in the lockdown-prone month of September. Since then, I’ve visited several times and it has lodged itself as a firm favourite in my mind. This blog will encapsulate all those visits except one, because I was quite drunk that time.

I’ll start with my most recent visit, a mere few weeks after Melbourne came out of its last lockdown of 2021. Having steadily eaten out almost every day for several weeks, my tummy was close to bursting and so on this occasion, I made highly intolerance-friendly decisions.

I’m slightly odd in adhering to my intolerances in that I have a certain anxiety about it – I hate putting people out (whether it’s waitstaff or friends) and have taken to calling restaurants beforehand or showing up unfashionably early to find out if there are any dishes suitable for me. In this instance, I showed up nearly 20 minutes early to our booking to find out that yes, Capitano could do two pastas without onion and garlic – the tonnarelli (vegan cacio e pepe) and the conchigle (Crystal Bay Prawn, butter and chives – $30). I didn’t ask about pizzas, though Capitano do wonderful ones – including Detroit-style square pies (pies being a North American colloquialism for pizza).

Conchigle is a pasta variety shaped like a conch shell and sadly I had to swap it out for gluten-free pasta (it looked like fusilli, but I know there are subtle differences between Italian pasta shapes, so don’t hold me to that!). What’s important is how good this gluten-free pasta tasted – perfectly al dente with a pleasant bite and chew to it. The smooth and velvety buttery chive sauce was fantastic – I’m guessing garlic would’ve been an integral ingredient in the original version of this sauce, but the garlicky breadcrumbs tossed throughout added a much needed textural and savoury counterpoint (the waitstaff asked me earlier if this would be fine and it was – I can tolerate garlic oil and small amounts of breadcrumbs don’t set me off).

The morsels of Crystal Bay prawns scattered throughout were sweet and moist and because I’d saved most of them to the end, each perfect forkful of pasta had them. This pasta would’ve been sublime for a regular pasta, but the fact that it was an intolerance-friendly pasta that didn’t make me sick after was the cherry on top – I savoured every bite and was very happy with my decision.

Beer Jenga Master and Skin Contact White Drinker – who last appeared in tandem in this 2017 review of Bar Liberty (incidentally owned by the same people as Capitano) – both opted for the vodka sauce tortiglioni ($26), my absolute favourite dish at Capitano. The menu at Capitano changes seasonably, which I’m often sad about because many of my favourite dishes don’t remain on the menu, but the vodka sauce is a constant – Capitano know a crowd-pleaser when they see one. The only thing that changes is the pasta they pair it with.

Pasta alla vodka is by no means a new creation, but it became especially popular in mid-2020 when Gigi Hadid posted her recipe on her Instagram story, which went viral.

There is some contention whether this dish is Italian or Italian American. Although it makes sense that a pasta dish would’ve originated in Italy, pasta alla vodka’s ubiquity in North America – it’s considered the fourth most popular pasta after spaghetti and meatballs, ziti, and mac and cheese – gives food historians pause. The first use of vodka in a pasta dish was recorded in 1874 but there have been multiple claims as to who invented pasta alla vodka – a chef at a Bologna-based restaurant called Dante, a Roman chef who worked for a vodka company, Chef Luigi Franzese at the New York-based Orsini Restaurant, and a graduate of Columbia University called James Doty are all potential inventors of the now famed vodka sauce.

Skin Contact White Drinker didn’t say much but polished off her plate in record time, which can only speak to the quality of the pasta, while small-stomached Beer Jenga Master struggled to finish her portion, though she admirably did in the end.

From my experience of having ordered Capitano’s vodka sauce tortiglioni on two previous occasions, it’s a must-order dish. The almost pink sauce is thin and silky with an acidic bite from the tomatoes, which is tempered by the smoothness of the cream.

Another notable dish we ordered, though it doesn’t sound like much, was the iceberg salad with a parm dressing drizzled with parm crisp ($13). Beer Jenga Master was strongly against ordering a salad, but with more cheese than salad in this one, I managed to convince her. This was an incredibly fresh and savoury accompaniment to our pastas, with the shaved bits of parm crisp adding wonderful bursts of umami. I used the wedges of iceberg lettuce to mop up the buttery chive sauce of my pasta and it was, to use a cliché, heavenly.

Although 2021 lasted for approximately ten years, it was only a few months ago before this most recent visit that I last went to Capitano with Helen Garner’s Best Friend, who by some serendipitous circumstances had shared a drink with the living legend herself, and Gingko Leaf Girl, who last appeared on WFYB in this review of Shop 225.

Apart from the aforementioned vodka sauce pasta, we also shared a pizza with pancetta, provolone picante (a semi-hard, aged Italian cheese), fior di latte and fresh marjoram. Some deep sleuthing on my part (code for deep Instagram stalking) revealed the tomato base on this one was half preserved tomatoes, half fresh tomatoes, and the whole thing was topped with pecorino post-bake. It had a deep savoury flavour to it, owing to the three different types of cheeses used, and the bursts of saltiness from the strips of pancetta pleasantly punctuated every bite.

And before that time (!!), I visited in January 2021 – which makes it three visits to Capitano in a lockdown-addled year, a true achievement – and I have to say: Capitano is best in summer. The sun streams through into the maroon and ivory Art Deco interiors, bathing its diners in warm natural light. Its selection of lighter cocktails, ranging from a pear bellini to a Sable’s spritz, are best enjoyed when you’re able to walk home cloaked in a heady feeling of tipsiness that hasn’t quite tipped over into drunkenness.

On this occasion, I visited with Proud Perthian and Ox Tongue Soul Sister and we ordered a representative cross-section of the menu, though the menu changes so often not many of these dishes remain.

First up was the three round morsels of pasta suppli. Sold to us as deep-fried carbonara, they seemed like a must-order and our opinion remain unchanged after trying them. Suppli is similar to everyone’s favourite Sicilian delicacy arancini, except it’s from Rome, where it is a highly popular street food, and it can also be stuffed with pasta before being breaded and fried to crispy perfection. A more traditional suppli is ‘suppli al telefono’ where the mozzarella string that forms when you pull the suppli apart resembles a telephone cord, hence the name, and there was plenty of that characteristic cheese pull in this Capitano version. I hope they bring this entrée back because it was my first taste of suppli and I would like to have it again.

Another entrée we shared was bresaola, an air-dried salted meat (typically beef) that’s been aged two-to-three months until it develops a dark red, almost purple colour. Capitano’s version was dotted with sesame kewpie and topped with sprigs of crisp deep-fried parsley – a lovely trifecta of umaminess.

Proud Perthian and I both opted for the vodka sauce pasta but in a half-assed attempt to follow my intolerances, I ordered mine with gluten-free fusilli while hers came with rigatoncini.

I’ve talked about how much I love this pasta, and this first taste of it at Capitano was a momentous occasion.

Ox Tongue Soul Sister went for the potato pie (which sadly isn’t on the menu anymore – I checked) where a garlic cream base was topped with thinly sliced kipfler potatoes and taleggio cheese and garnished with capers and watercress. She loved it but had to take half of it away owing to precious stomach space being occupied by our entrées.

Years before I visited Capitano thrice in 2021, I visited for the first time in 2019 – which is, now that I think about it, the last time I properly celebrated my birthday!!! *insert emoji of the simultaneously crying and smiling face* I was accompanied by Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat and Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat.

It’s hard for me to go past a seafood pasta and so on this special day of birth, I ordered the housemade spaghetti chitarra con mussels fra diavolo. Fra diavolo means ‘brother devil’ – what I’ve been known to call my younger sibling tbh – but in this instance, it refers to a spicy, tomato-based sauce where crushed red pepper flakes give it its heat.  As the mussels cook in this pasta, they open and release their natural juices, enhancing the rich flavour of the tomato broth. The fact that this pasta had copious amounts of chilli and plump mussels – look at them!! – means there’s no way I didn’t enjoy this dish.

Mama WFYB ordered Capitano’s signature rigatoncini with vodka sauce – someone had to – while Papa WFYB ordered another relic of Capitano’s past menus, the tortelli stuffed with something delicious, I’m sure, in a brown butter pine nut sauce.

Mr WFYB ordered the double ‘roni pizza (whose name has not aged well) with tomato, pepperoni, scamorza and pecorino, which I remember him enjoying.

We also ordered a dessert but I have no recollection of what it was, despite this picture existing. Sorry. Looks good though.

Each time I’ve visited Capitano, I’ve had a wonderful experience. It’s reasonably priced, it has a great vibe, the seasonal changing menu is always exciting – there’s never fewer than five things I’d like to order – and as proven with my most recent visit, they’re great with dietary intolerances. I’ve averaged all the bloats I’ve received over the years for a grand total of two bloats – not bad at all.

Capitano is open Monday to Thursday from 5.30pm to 9.30pm, on Friday from 5.30pm to 10pm, on Saturday from 12pm to 10pm, and on Sunday from 12pm to 9.30pm.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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