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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003 02:20 pm

Room with a view

Chef David Ritzo brings an “American flair” to Italian cuisine

When Capisce? Ristorante Italiano opened its doors in May, it already enjoyed a built-in advantage: a panoramic view of Springfield no area restaurant could match. Even its manager acknowledges the restaurant's prime location on the 30th floor on the Hilton Springfield draws customers who may be unfamiliar with its eclectic, authentic Italian menu.

"The view brings them here. Then they eat and are surprised that a young chef can cook like that," says Capisce? restaurant director Paolo Foscherari, a native of Genoa, Italy. "Eighty percent of the people come for the view. But there are only 12 window seats, so it's on a first come, first serve basis."

Capisce?, which means "do you understand?" in Italian, replaced Gumba Ya Ya's, which for eight years served Cajun food in the space. The renovated dining room now features aquamarine walls decorated with large, vibrant photos of flowers, modern glass vases and mirrors. Glass sconces and bulbous white chandeliers illuminate the space. Aqua-patterned, U-shaped booths facing the windows also provide more seats with a view.

Foscherari, who spent 10 years working for an Italian cruise line, as well as restaurants in France and Miami Beach, was previously the Hilton's banquet director. He says the restaurant's philosophy is "to satisfy every guest and serve authentic Italian food with a flair."

Capisce? chef David Ritzo, 28, is a Jacksonville native who graduated from the Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts in Rhode Island and trained in Milan and England before returning to central Illinois. Before joining Capisce?, he was the chef at Augie's Front Burner. "It's not a traditional Italian restaurant," he says. "There's an American flair to the dishes" to accommodate local taste buds. "I try to focus on what sells to the public here," he adds, focusing his menu on meat, fish and pasta. Any kind of steak special is a guaranteed customer favorite, he says.

Although Ritzo says he likes to cook all kinds of food, he developed an appreciation of Italian cuisine when visiting relatives in Sicily in the mid-'90s. "Everyone in Italy has a passion for seasonal ingredients and fresh produce. They survive on what they grow," he says. He takes that traditional use of fresh ingredients and uses them in new ways. Even the desserts receive special treatment. The tiramisu, for example, uses traditional ingredients like Belgian chocolate sauce with espresso, dark rum and amaretto. The rich ingredients are blended and served in a round glass, rather than as an expected layered cake.

Ritzo, who makes his own pasta, also butchers the pork to make his double-cut pork chops. "I could get a job in a butcher shop if I had to," he says.

During a recent visit to the restaurant, my dining companion tried the lobster bisque, which was creamy and tasty. Our helpful waiter suggested the crab cakes as an appetizer and he was right. They were crispy toasted lumps of blue crab, served with a citrus chipotle aioli and topped with fried onion straws. Other appetizers include calamari, antipasti, steamed mussels and crab stuffed shrimp. Pasta entrees include Cannelloni alla Nettuno (a mix of crackled garlic shrimp folded with gumbo blue crab and seafood in homemade rolled pasta); Cannelloni Tutti Carni (cannelloni filled with veal, pork, mild Italian sausage, beef and spices) and Roasted Garlic Pesto Shrimp Linguini, which provided a mild medley of flavor.

Entrees include Modena Style Duck Breast (pan-seared boneless maple leaf duck breast, served over ratatouille brunoise sauté with couscous and Modena balsamic reduction). The tender slices of duck almost melt in your mouth. Other entrees include Cinisari Pork Loin (double-cut pork loin chop served over soft polenta with caramelized apples, chipotle honey glaze and crispy leeks); New York Steak Gorgonzola (grilled steak topped with caramelized onions, melted gorgonzola cheese, wild mushroom polenta and marsala sauce; and Grilled New Zealand Lamb (served with herbed parmesan horseradish crust, basil pesto oil and risotto Milanese timballo).

Fall and winter specials include Apple Wood Smoked Pork Brisket (wrapped in phyllo with chipotle honey roasted pumpkin and veal stock reduction); Braised Oxtail Ravioli (served with seared Hudson Valley foie gris, butternut squash puree and caramelized shallot apricot sauternes reduction) and Ballotine of Farm Raised Pheasant (with sage pheasant mouse, crisp pancetta, roasted acorn squash and candied walnuts).


Capisce? is located on the top floor of the Hilton Springfield, 700 E. Adams St. Phone: 217-789-1530. Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. Reservations recommended but not required.


Tasting Springfield

The state's tourism office is trying to tempt people to visit the capital city for its unique food offerings. A travel package now being advertised is called a "Taste of Springfield" and highlights some of the city's culinary treats.

The package includes two nights at the Comfort Inn, a box of Pease's Candy, horseshoes at the Barrel Head, Cozy Dogs at the Cozy Drive In on Route 66 and dinner at the historic Chesapeake Seafood House. The promotional package is available through March 31, 2004 and costs $225 for two people.

The tourism office is part of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. For more information, contact Valerie Cowen at 217-787-2250.

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