Written by: Jacqueline Greaves
Ristorante da Tonino
Chef: Salvatore Aprea
Via Dentecala 12, Capri (Na) Italy
Tel. +39 081 8376718
Let’s face it, my favorite restaurant is da Tonino a twenty-minute brisk walk uphill from the Piazzetta di Capri, followed by another twenty minutes downhill. Chef Salvatore Aprea has no official stars – accolades aplenty - and, who adore his cooking have given ours, and more importantly sent our friends and family, returning year after year, and sometimes as in my case more than three or five times in a ten-day span schedule permitting. A bit much? I actually thought of writing a more restrained piece, however, life is too precarious and way too short to dine out in restaurants that completely leave me dissatisfied and edgy. At Da Tonino I tend to eat my favorite dishes repeatedly even if I go two days in a row. It is only if I can sneak in that third or fourth visit that I allow my curiosity for new dishes to take hold. There is always a sense of surprise and a certain wishfulness because you want more than ever to return soon to have other opportunities to appreciate these distinctive and tantalizing flavors, combinations and textures. You’ll want to return the next day and the next, and the next. Once, I went twice the same day, totally guilt free pleasure and true decadence.
Our chef maintains a high standard of traditional Italian culinary techniques and flavors learnt first at the side of his brilliant father, Tonino Aprea, and later in his stints working at the famous San Domenico in Imola (2 Michelin stars) and in the kitchen of Heinz Beck (5 Michelin stars) before returning three years ago to reopen his father’s restaurant. A great restaurant for me is a place where the staff is obviously attentive and enthusiastic to be working, and are actively involved in making its clients feel welcomed. The wine cellar has over 10,000 bottles of the most impressive wines possible and connoisseurs can frequently be spotted there. Wines are also available by the glass and for those who prefer a cocktail, the bar is definitely open. Gennaro, the older brother runs the farm where the pigs are raised, and that is not all he does, and this is a family kitchen/restaurant. He is a trained biologist and spent many years doing research in Madagascar, hence don’t expect to find the use of any other type of vanilla beans, but those of Madagascar. He and his brother Salvatore are also known to experiment together creating new combinations and recipes using local flora and herbs that they gathered while foraging in the exquisitely green and luscious countryside. The concept is a modernization of traditional and local dishes, but without the loss of the essential traditional flavors and context of the innate cuisine. Freshness and purity are a must with much of their produce and herbs coming from their farm, herb garden and orchard or purchased from local farmers and fishermen. Featured fish was caught the night before and Salvatore avoids the use of farmed fish. Another important key to their success is the maître d – Maurizio, a pastry chef, fully qualified to talk to you about wines and ingredients recipe, spending as much time as possible explaining to a diner the intricacies of a particular dish and wine pairings. Recipes are enjoyed as much as the actual dish. His enthusiasm and good humor increase expectations and pleasure. He has never steered me wrong, sharing with me it seems similar tastes. He is also happy to take you on a tour of the wine cellar if requested.
Now let’s talk about the great Tonino himself. Antonio and I were advised to go to the restaurant back in 1995 and we haven’t stopped since, except for the years when Salvatore trained elsewhere. I still dream of Tonino’s recipes and if we are lucky and Salvatore has the time he will make one especially for us: the anchovy, peppers and potato profiterole with a light pesto. Not a profiterole in the real sense as no pastry is involved, but ingredients are stacked on top of each other similar to a profiterole. A distinctive delicate appetizer bursting with layers of flavor, I had to try once my hand at making it in my kitchen in New York to gratifying success. Of course my guests had never eaten it either at the hands of Tonino nor Salvatore, nor did I have the correct ingredients, but they were suitably impressed.
Convinced? For me a trip to Capri is hollow without a stop at da Tonino. Go for an appetizer and a glass of wine while looking for a bathroom after visiting the Arco Naturale/Natural Arch or the Belvedere on a cool or rainy afternoon. There are a tasting menu, a gluten free menu and a vegetarian menu, as well as an extensive list of allergens. If you are adventurous, try Salvatore’s experiments that will be an absolutely fabulous and heady treat. If by chance you love taking cooking classes, Salvatore offers classes through Cooking-Vacation (www.cooking-vacations.com, firstname.lastname@example.org). Fantastic as he is an amazingly patient and fun teacher. His humility and generosity are apparent in his style, as is his love of what he is doing. Certainly without love in the kitchen you might as well just stick with bread and water. Except, his breads are decadent and it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. He and his staff are welcoming and ready to answer questions and to patiently explain a technique or rational. Some secrets must be allowed for, but I learnt more than I ever knew in one lesson and was certainly stimulated to try new flavors and techniques.
At da Tonino the experience is between a great joy and the perfect sin. “Secret” ingredients are tradition, love, respect, generosity and delight. No empty flavors here and I always leave with a sense of elation that I carry with me throughout the year while patiently awaiting my return.
Absolute favorite never to be missed suggestions from the menu:
Coniglio fritto ripieno di melanzane e scamorza con salsa al curry/Fried roll of rabbit filled with eggplant and cheese with a curry sauce
Scialatielli, melanzane, provola affumicata e pomodorini/Homemade handcut pasta – Scialatielli with eggplant, smoked provola cheese and cherry tomatoes
Maialino nero da latte con puree di mele annurche, papaccelle e cicoriette/Saddle of baby black pig with apple puree, papaccelle (diced pickled papaccelle peppers) and chicory
Capresina calda con cuore morbido di Chuao, salsa e gelato alla vaniglia del Madagascar/Warm white almond cake with liquid chocolate center with Madagascar vanilla crème anglaise and gelato