The Quest for the Best Dinner Table on Capri
Not far from Capri’s Marina Grande, exit right at the first bend along the road that winds upwards from the main port. If you see the Church of Saint Costanzo you’ve gone too far. The street marked with Ristorante da Paolino atop the hand-painted tiles may seem too narrow for cars, but at night it becomes a hive of activity with Capri’s signature topless taxis buzzing in and out until three in the morning. Yes, 3:00 AM! Follow this street past the gourmet grocery store that you’ll want to return to, again and again. Sharp right. Discover a laneway set amongst vineyards, gardens and fruit orchards. Fifty years ago a simple lemon grove existed here, where Paolino’s wife cooked for him and their neighbors to pay off the land. Nowadays his son Lino and Lino’s nieces and nephews run the al fresco trattoria set in Paolino’s original lemon grove. Locals, tourists and jet setters alike, line up along the laneway for the dining-under-the-lemon-trees experience, and for the simple cooking this part of the world is famous for. Think Ravioli Capresi drenched in either fresh lemon or rich tomato and basil sauce, zucchini flower rigatoni, spaghetti with clams, lemon linguine, lemon risotto, freshly grilled seafood and lots of lightly fried delicacies. Mmmmm, these are the delicious thoughts that have been lingering in my head since last summer when a friend in the know dropped me the name. Alas, no amount of phone calls or emails have been able to secure a table. The only thing left is to try in person.
Now as I walk into the restaurant – embarrassed by my gym attire for our impending trek up the 921 ancient Phoenician Steps to Anacapri – I finally see what all the fuss is about. The lemon trees form a leafy canopy over the dining tables where even the bright morning sunlight struggles to find the gaps. It’s green and gold for days and I’m keener than ever to eat here tonight – our last night on Capri. I’m not waiting another year so game face on!
It’s all hustle and bustle cleaning up the previous night’s dinner shift when we arrive mid-hike at Da Paolino. I scan the faces, quickly working out who carries the most authority and settle on Lino, by chance. I ask if I can book for tonight and hold my breath. He motions one of the boys to call his niece Arianna who arrives pronto. She’s 100% Capri – loose dark curls pulled back haphazardly from her warm bronzed face. I explain my booking issues while she smiles apologetically. We really had exhausted all efforts, even contacting local self-described ‘PR people’ to get us in – to no avail. Arianna takes pity on us and says that the three of us can come at midnight. Midnight! I hand her my card and we chat some more. By the end of the conversation she says to arrive about 10:00 PM, after our sunset aperitif at nearby J.K. Place, and she will give us the first available table. Bingo!
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Unless you have a month on Capri, you need to be not only very selective about your dining options but also persistent. It is a quest! I have my list of must-do’s every visit but I try to put aside at least one night to try something new. Especially during peak season this means booking well in advance, either by phone or email, or better still have your hotel do it. This July we only had three nights to play with so there was no room for error!
Night 1: Villa Verde
Across the street from our gorgeous digs at La Palma in the center of Capri town, the door to Villa Verde hides an enormous ‘secret garden’ courtyard with a surrounding upper-level of terraced dining. Anyone who’s anyone is sitting on the terrace, maybe even Mariah Carey! They save a table for her every night… just in case! Every meal is special and beautifully plated but don’t skip the Red Fin tuna tartar or the Caprese buffalo mozzarella salad – one big ball of buttery soft perfection which explodes the moment you hold your knife to it, cascading over the impossibly bright red and yellow Sorrentine tomatoes like creamy lava. Heaven! It’s a tradition to come here with my family (twenty years and counting). Someone always recognizes me which only makes me love it more. Years ago the waiters would dim the lights at about ten o’clock and sing a classic like Volare or That’s Amore. I secretly hope every time that they’ll bring it back and mention it to owner Franco as we are leaving. He says to remind him next time and they’ll sing it every five minutes for me. Can’t wait!
Night 2: Michel’angelo
All my foodie and blogger friends in Rome, including my travel buddy Livia Hengel, have been urging me to dine here. So I’m excited to finally meet the owners, dynamic duo Gianluca and Holly, a fellow Aussie. Their restaurant/mozzarella bar/pizzeria is one of the few places on the island that remains open throughout the winter when the holiday crowds have long disappeared. Dining at Michel’angelo is like eating with long lost friends - very talented long lost friends. Gianluca is the genius in the kitchen and if you ask nicely, Holly will sing up a storm alongside the pianist. The local specialties like lemon fettucine and mixed seafood risotto are perfection and don’t even bother trying to choose between the lemon and chocolate 'caprese' tortes. Take them both! We roll out the door at midnight exchanging hugs and kisses while organizing catering for our private day trip around the island the following morning with Capri Relax Boats. Gianluca presents me with a bottle of red wine from their own winery to take back to Rome and share with my husband. I can instantly see why legal eagle Holly gave up her Sydney life and stayed on Capri to marry him. They now have two divine children and run a booming cooking school by day.
Night 3: Da Paolino
It’s glorious. A gentle sea breeze runs through the ‘dining area’, a casually immaculate garden overflowing with giant bright yellow lemons – which drop from the overhead branches with alarming regularity! The setting is only enhanced by the spattering of colorful ceramics, candles and apple green table cloths. All throughout dinner I can’t help wondering – if a lemon falls on your head, do you eat for free?
Our lemon-infused seafood dishes are delicious to the very last bite - which I regret when it’s time to visit the dessert and fruit buffet. It’s not a table. It’s a room! The extensive wine list is heavy with local offerings and happily features plenty of bubbles and rosés. Our last night on Capri is incredible, mostly due to our new friends Lino and Arianna who sit down to chat at various times throughout our meal – despite a heaving restaurant. I can’t quite believe I’m here sharing a limoncello (theirs of course) with third and fourth generation Da Paolino family members. Then the icing on the cake – Arianna insists on giving me her cell number so I can book directly with her from now on. This is the Italy I fell in love with.
If I’d stayed a 4th night: Aurora
For a special occasion experience that can’t be beaten and some guaranteed star-spotting, treat yourself to a night at Aurora, AFTER 9:00 PM. Book weeks in advance or go in person (looking chic). This quintessential Capri restaurant is run by the third generation of the D’Alessio family, Mia. It’s famous for its pizza all’acqua (try this 100-year-old pizza recipe - with truffles!), and for attracting the rich and famous. In the last fortnight alone, Mia has welcomed Michael Jordan, Giorgio Armani, Hugh Jackman (damn!) Will Smith, Bono, Lebron James, Beyonce and Jay Z. I was there for my birthday last summer and they really make you feel like a princess when they turn down the lights, pump up the music and bring a cake with sparklers, all while the owners and staff sing happy birthday to you. What’s not to love!
Wishing for a 5th night: Il Geranio
Last summer my favorite dining experience was the lobster pasta at Il Geranio, a five minute stroll from the Piazzetta (if you don’t stop in the boutiques). It’s my best all-round for its seafood, fresh pasta, and the service from Roberto and his team. Did I mention the spectacular Mediterranean vista and peaceful setting beneath the pine trees? Our Capri Relax boat skipper (and friend of Roberto’s) kindly made the booking for us. Otherwise we wouldn’t have snagged a table, let alone one of the best in the house overlooking the three iconic Faraglioni – giant rock masses which rise out of the sea. The elegance of Il Geranio suits its position in one of the most romantic parts of the island, next door to the Gardens of Augustus. It’s also across the path from Capri Rooftop, a chic rooftop bar where those in the know go before dinner to enjoy lush cocktails with 180 degree sea-views, or after dinner for a nightcap.
Pizza night: Buca di Bacco
For Neapolitan-style pizza, I love Buca di Bacco, a cozy, affordable pizzeria frequented by locals and visitors alike. To enjoy a panoramic view over Marina Grande, reserve the table at the only window in the cave-like restaurant. If you’re craving a classic margherita pizza and haven’t made a booking, find this hidden gem and you won’t wait too long for a table. Be adventurous and try the pizza with mussels which is almost a rich tomato and mussel soup atop the traditional wood-fired pizza!