In spring, Mission Viejo residents' thoughts lightly turn to pasta.
In what has become a sort of culinary Mardi Gras, Italian food lovers flock to Capriccio Italiano Ristorante's pasta festival, a two-week March celebration of the marriage of noodle and sauce.
During the festival, executive chef Ciacone Marciano, who with brother Valentino owns the restaurant, concocts a four-pasta sampler. Each year it's a little different: perhaps penne in tomato/cream sauce, bow-tie pasta with walnuts, fettuccine Alfredo and capellini in a tomato sauce exploding with black olives, garlic, anchovies and capers. With Caesar salad and tiramisu included for $16.95, it's quite a meal.
The pasta festival is the one time of year the Marciano brothers really promote their exquisite pastas, and it has helped earn Capriccio the reputation of one of the best Italian restaurants in the Saddleback Valley.
I first heard about the place about 10 years ago from a Mission Viejo resident who bragged that Capriccio served better Italian food than I could get in Newport Beach. A heady claim, considering Newport's fine Italian restaurants, so I went to the festival, where one of the pastas was sedanini alla Bella Otero. It practically blew me away; the pasta (short, slightly curved lengths of macaroni) was unfamiliar, and I'd never had such a rich vodka cream sauce, powerfully flavored with fresh tomatoes, tarragon, shallots and the pancetta. I also remember a decadent fettuccine Alfredo with green peas and prosciutto in a buttery cream sauce.
Duly impressed, I returned to Capriccio a few more times that year, each time enjoying big, bold flavors I rarely found elsewhere. This much is certain: No Italian food around here tastes like Capriccio's.
When I went back recently, I found that the little strip mall restaurant had expanded, taking over the space next door. The Marcianos had remodeled their room with classy tables and a full bar, and opera music now played in the background. Capriccio had become much more than the neighborhood trattoria it was when it opened 15 years ago, but it retained its suburban feel--most of the men were wearing shorts and T-shirts, and there were more families than couples.
Despite the new look, Capriccio's menu hadn't changed. Unlike many upscale Italian restaurants, Capriccio doesn't feature pasta as an intermediate course (secondi) between the appetizer and entree. Instead, these heaping plates are entrees themselves. This makes choosing what to eat here a little bit tougher because all meat and seafood entrees come with a side of pasta, either fettuccine Alfredo or capellini with tomatoes and basil (you can substitute any other pasta you want for a little bit extra).
In addition, there are appetizers to consider, but I'll make this choice easy. Order the calamari Siciliani. The tender calamari is perfectly cooked, but the rich, impressively aromatic broth is the star--it teems with minced garlic, herbs, more garlic, capers, black olives and still more garlic.
Then you can proceed to the pastas. These dishes are feasts, amply filling plates as big as hubcaps. There are 18 choices, and you won't find most of them at many other Italian restaurants. I've already mentioned the sedanini, a personal favorite, but I wouldn't say that it's more attractive than others I've tried.
As I've said, this place goes for big flavors. The spaghetti puttanesca features a fresh tomato sauce powered by garlic, capers, black olives and anchovies. A much simpler dish, linguine con salsiccia alla campagna, is packed with sausage, bell peppers, onions, fresh tomatoes and herb-garlic sauce. It's a simple dish, something you'd expect to be served at someone's house--that is, a good cook's house.
You've probably noticed that tomatoes and garlic dominate the pasta sauces. This is true even in the seafood pastas. For an ultra-rich creamy pasta sauce, I turn to tortellini alla Norma, in which veal-stuffed tortellini are slathered with a cognac and cream sauce with prosciutto, pine nuts and walnuts. Penne quarto formaggi has a cheese-lover's sauce: Swiss, provolone, Gorgonzola and Parmesan blended with cream, plus prosciutto to give a salty tang.
The entree selections offer a wide choice of chicken and veal dishes, none particularly memorable, but Ciacone Marciano has a light touch with his seafood dishes, starting with salmone reale capriccioso--a fine cut of king salmon poached with a potent tarragon and green peppercorn sauce.
Marciano also shows flair with the daily specials. There's usually a pasta, a chicken and steak dish (a lamb chop is available during the winter), but once again, it's the seafood choices that shine. To prove that not all his dishes need to be big and hearty, Marciano accompanies his filet of sole with champagne sauce and a delicate salmon mousse one night and with garlic, mushrooms, fennel and saffron sauce on another.
And his pesce spada alla Dijonaise, a pan-roasted swordfish stuffed with shallots, eggplant and bell peppers and sauteed in a Pinot Grigio sauce, proves just how wonderful and inventive the Italian way with seafood can be.
The changes are ongoing at Capriccio--the brothers plan to add personal pizzas to the menu and open a patio. Given Ciacone Marciano's taste for big flavors, I can only wonder of the things he can do with a pizza crust. Perhaps a pizza festival will soon follow.
Capriccio is moderately expensive. Appetizers run $8 to $10, pasta dishes $8 to $14 and entrees $12 to $20.
Capriccio Italiano Ristorante, 25380 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. (949) 855-6866. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m; dinner Sunday-Thursday, 4:30-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30-10:30 p.m.