By Claire Harlin
Home to many artists and writers who have sought inspiration from natural beauty, the Italian island of Capri is a star-studded vacation spot that has historically been progressive and fast-evolving — much like the career of Sal Ercolano, a native of the island who has developed neighborhood restaurants fashioned after his European birthplace.
Villa Capri has been a Carmel Valley staple in Piazza Carmel for more than 10 years. In addition, Ercolano and co-owner/chef Antonio Viscito earlier this year brought the upscale trattoria concept to Poway, adding location-specific menu items and a wine bar.
Italian restaurants are often referred to as “trattorias,” but under the true definition of the word, Villa Capri fits the bill — with a contemporary twist. If you came across a trattoria in Italy, it wouldn’t be in a city, said Ercolano. It would be in a suburb and it would be casual, a real neighborhood destination, where — like Villa Capri — everyone knows everyone and the owner is your friend.
“A lot of people come here because they know me,” said Ercolano, adding that a lot of loyal locals attend his frequent wine dinners, which feature special prix fixe menus. “I know my guests too, and I’m usually at the front.”
Viscito is also the type of chef who interacts with guests about the food and is out in the restaurant when he’s not in the kitchen, Ercolano said.
Viscito, like Ercolano, is from South Italy and inspired by the food and beauty of capri, letting his roots shine brightly in his dishes.
“Capri has always been sophisticated and fish is the No. 1 item,” said Ercolano. “It’s the one place you can find all the local lobsters and shrimps.”
He said the seafood risotto captures the essence of the island, but he also brings to the table several other authentic recipes. The word “caprese,” often seen on Italian menus, literally means “from the island of Capri” and the Villa Capri menu includes ravioli caprese and mozzarella caprese, which we more commonly call the caprese salad. For dessert, the restaurant offers a torta caprese, which is a flowerless cake with chocolates and almonds.
Ercolano said restaurant guests’ longtime favorite dish, however, is the Jewish-style artichokes, which are sautéed until crispy with parsley and basil.
Ercolano not only has caprese customs at heart, but he has running a restaurant in his genes. His family opened a restaurant in Capri when he was 6, which he eventually took over and sold to work at a restaurant in Bermuda. There he learned English and entrepreneurship fast, and after two years he moved to Manhattan, where he became a restaurant manager. He later spent time managing an Italian eatery in Hong Kong before settling down in San Diego, and it’s no wonder he successfully started 16 restaurants here, some of which he sold and some he kept.
“I was born to be a restaurant operator,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”
Villa Capri is located in Piazza Carmel at 3870 Valley Centre Drive, #301, Carmel Valley (San Diego), 92130. For more information, visit www.villacapriristorante.com or call 858-720-8777.
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