A new restaurant, big personality and lots of stars are in Tony Capasso’s orbit
There’s no corralling Tony Capasso, the effusive managing partner of Tony’s, his restaurant at the J House in the Riverside section of Greenwich.
For years, he’s been known as the Trivia Guy, a man of a thousand questions. He first came on the scene in Riverside at Valbella, where he attracted almost the entire Yankees team to come and dine.
Then he moved to Gabriele’s in Greenwich, taking his clientele with him. And now he’s at Tony’s.
He eats fast, walks fast and talks so fast that he spins out a whole story on how he became the trivia whiz of Greenwich while you’re still processing the first question he throws out.
“What’s the most expensive spice?” Answer is easy: saffron. The second question is fired at you like a bullet that found its mark.
“What is the second most expensive spice?” Ah, that is a bit of a stumper. “Vanilla bean,” Capasso answers, grinning ear to ear.
It’s been just over a year since Capasso took over the restaurant at the posh J House. He revamped the interior to make it more romantic at night and cozier during the day. The once bare tables are now napped with white linens, chandeliers are ensconced in persimmon-colored shades, potted trees shimmer with up-lit miniature bulbs, and seating is much more comfortable.
The menu hews to a southern Italian opus with flamboyant flourishes. So, for example, the humble meatball is now elevated to regal status: It is huge, a domineering presence of the Italian triumvirate of beef, pork and veal meshed with the lightening properties of ricotta and milk. It’s gently mixed, browned, then braised in the oven in a veal broth to delicious tenderness. One meatball easily satisfies two diners. Rice balls take a star turn as well. Suffused with short ribs and porcini mushrooms, they are served with a garlic cream sauce in the event you want to be further seduced.
And the gnocchi … ah well, now we’re talking.
It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a rainy, raw day and Capasso has been in meetings since he arrived hours earlier. He’s hungry, sits at the white marble-topped bar and practically wolfs down forkfuls of gnocchi. They are light as air, the soft dough wrapped around teaspoons of flavored ricotta. They’re bathed in a rich, thick tomato sauce brimming with aromatics. Italian perfection.
“Who was the shortest president in America,” asks Trivia Guy as he eats the last morsel of pasta. Who would ever think of such a question or possibly know the answer? “Madison,” he answers himself, a smile spreading wide on his face.
Oh, does Capasso love his trivia. He loves food, too. He was groomed to work with people, he says. And it all began with car lots.
Capasso’s father owned two car lots in Yonkers. He knew how to romance potential customers and according to Capasso, he was a master at it. Young Tony paid attention. But it was in restaurants, not on a car lot, where he chose to forge his career.
“I started at Edmondos as a dishwasher,” he explains of his foray into food and trivia, “when the producer of the ‘Howard Stern’ show walked in. All the talk at his table was about the new movie, ‘The Godfather’.” Capasso bragged that he could answer any question about the movie if he was on the show. The producer took the dare, put him on the show and Capasso aced all the questions on the movie. Capasso then recognized that he had the keys to a successful restaurant: knowing his patrons, serving them good food and providing entertainment with trivia. “People like being fussed over,” says this Energizer bunny who clocks a work week of 80 to 90 hours.
In starched white shirt, initialed cuffs, pocket square in the breast pocket, Capasso is the quintessential maitre d’. He’s very conscious of a movie star’s desire for visibility and need for privacy, so he has the perfect table for them. He knows tycoons, sports figures and the local politicians by first name.
He glides through the dining room like a happy kid on a skateboard. If he sees a table where no one is talking, he starts a conversation with a question: “Name four state capitals with the same first letter as the state. Who was the only American president who had a Ph.D.?” The guests nibble on truffled French fries when he sails by again, either to high-five them if they answered correctly or to spew out the answer if they’re flummoxed. It’s showmanship on steroids.
And most people love it. Celebrities like baseball’s Paul O’Neill, sportscaster Hannah Storm, David Letterman, Judge Judy and Kathie Lee Gifford follow him as if he were the Pied Piper of restaurants. They walk past the huge baskets of lemons and red peppers at the entrance of Tony’s, and past the refrigerated seafood and meat displays to await the gustatory opulence of an Italian seafood/steak house: a pork chop that conquers the plate or a pasta dancing a tarantella with truffles, cream sauce and lobster tail.
Over the top? You got that right.
Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.