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Brotherly love of good food

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Brothers Eric and Brian Isaac went where no fine-dining restaurateurs had dared go: to Main Street Argenta, otherwise known as downtown North Little Rock. Oddsmakers might have given them little chance on that side of the river four years ago.

But not only has Ristorante Capeo made it, and come to be rated as one of the best restaurants in Central Arkansas, the Isaacs now have plans in place for a second restaurant on North Little Rock’s Main Street. They’re also the cornerstone of a restaurant surge on Main.

North a block from Capeo, which is at the corner of Fifth and Main, the Isaacs will open Argenta Seafood in the summer. They are leasing the old Teak Furniture building from the V3 real estate group and having it reconfigured, which includes tearing out the current outer wall and expanding.

“It will be a full-service restaurant, a big seafood menu,” Eric Isaac says. “We’ll have 20 different fish, steaks, a chicken dish, that sort of menu. We have Italian here [at Capeo] and will continue to do Northern and Southern Italian dishes, but here we’re locked into Italian and people expect that. At Argenta Seafood, we won’t be limited by any one nation’s food.”

Including the bar, the restaurant will have seating for 165. The bar will seat about 30. The new design will allow for 30 to 40 outside seats as well, Isaac said, and will face Sixth Street.

Argenta Seafood is part of a planned restaurant and apartment mecca similar to the River Market district. Creegan’s Irish Pub is coming to a V3-owned building at Main and Broadway, thanks to three Air Force veterans who are having the all-wood pub constructed in pieces in Dublin and shipped to Arkansas. Cornerstone Pub and Reno’s Grill are established eateries in the 300 block of Main, along with Argenta Coffee. Condos are planned between Main and Maple streets, and another group is building the six-story Enclave on Washington Avenue across from Alltel Arena.

“V3 is looking at all this as a longterm investment,” Isaac said.

All this comes at a time when Alltel Arena is drawing almost 200,000 annually for concerts and many thousands more are attending other events there, the minor league baseball Arkansas Travelers are moving into their new Dickey-Stephens Ballpark on Broadway, and Frank Fletcher is planning a tower add-on to his Wyndham Hotel, which also has two restaurants: Benihana Japanese Steakhouse and the Riverfront Steakhouse. Travs GM Bill Valentine is planning a sit-down restaurant at Dickey-Stephens Park, too.

When Valentine isn’t handling the Travs, he can often be spotted among other familiar faces at Ristorante Capeo. With its fancy specialty pre-dinner drinks and a traditional Italian family-style menu that offers diners the chance to go cheap (maybe the city’s best spaghetti carbonara for $7.95) or splurge (osso bucco, elk steak, filets in the $30 range) along with a wide selection of wines and home-made desserts, Capeo has grown into a destination place for Central Arkansas.

Eric Isaac’s previous employer, Andrea Cassinelli, first envisioned bringing fine-dining to the downtown stretch of Main Street. She had once operated a fine Italian restaurant at 17th and Main Streets, but her plan to move into the Spanish-style building that once housed Owens Funeral Home at Fifth and Main didn’t pan out. Isaac, a Batesville native who worked five years for Cassinelli 1700 as sous chef and executive chef, and also spent six months in Italy at cooking school, went into the John Chandler-owned building cater-corner to the one Cassinelli eyed, and Ristorante Capeo was born in June 2003. Eric, 34, is the executive chef and Brian Isaac, 36, handles the business side.

“Brian was gullible enough for me to sucker him into it,” Eric Isaac said. “We feel good about the future, and even before all the recent announcements here we felt good about the way it’s going. Our business has increased 20 percent each year since we opened.”

Capeo has had almost no turnover in almost four years, maintaining the same kitchen and bar staff, as well as personable seating hostess Rose Barnes. “We’re real proud of our staff,” Isaac said. “I blame our staff for people continuing to bring people back after their first visit.”

Future plans are to open a Capeo’s in Northwest Arkansas and maybe out of state, but Eric Isaac calls that “pie in the sky.”

“Right now the focus is on this and Argenta Seafood.”

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