Ristorante Capeo was rocking Argenta before the downtown neighborhood was cool. Way before. When Capeo opened in 2003 there wasn't much in terms of food/drink/fun along the southernmost section of Main Street in North Little Rock.
As the dining and entertainment district has grown up around it, Capeo has motored straight ahead, still the linchpin for Argenta fine dining. Serious conversations about Central Arkansas's best restaurants should include Capeo as a contender. Its menu offers a broad selection of Italian favorites and beyond, and execution is near flawless in our considerable experience. The menu is pricy, but if you don't want to pony up for the more expensive entrees, know you can make quite a tasty and ample meal without venturing beyond the pasta section of the menu.
The packaged long, thin bread sticks that have adorned Capeo's tables for years have disappeared — boo! But on our recent trip there, crusty bread fresh from the oven arrived quickly, along with a slab of butter we thought we'd never finish (wrong!).
Two in our party started with hearty bowls of soup — wild mushroom ($9) and roasted butternut squash ($8). Both earned unqualified raves. The mushroom soup was creamy but not overly so, allowing the earthy 'shrooms to shine through. The butternut squash soup was a nice mix of savory and sweet, rich and benefiting from toasted slivered almonds on top. "This is like dessert" was one comment. Our only request: Offer a cup option, not just a bowl.
Three in our party opted for entrees from the pasta section, all bountiful portions for a very reasonable $13. The lasagna was more meaty than cheesy and its fresh and complex tomato sauce had a hint of spiciness. The penne with bacon and Gorgonzola is a fabulous, creative dish. The blue cheese is in the form of a sauce, and it's not overwhelming. The pasta was perfectly al dente.
We were equally enthralled by the baked penne with lamb, eggplant and fontina cheese. Unlike the other penne dish, this one is baked as a whole, resulting in a firm slab of many great tastes that came out of the oven piping hot. There wasn't a ton of lamb, but enough to flavor the dish. Same with the eggplant; the cheese, though, was liberally applied.
Our only foray into the 11 options in the entrees menu was the Duck Valentine ($28), six medallions of very tender, medium-rare duck flavored with a subtle sambuca/port reduction. It reinforced how far superior farm-raised duck is to the shot-outside-Humnoke variety so many Arkansans claim to love. The dish was served with a nice medley of sauteed carrots, squash and broccoli.
We saved just enough room to share two house-made desserts ($8). One was a creamy tiramisu less-cakey and less-coffee tasting than many you'll find around here. The other was a silky smooth saffron and honey panna cotta, the classic "cooked cream" Italian dessert, topped with a few macerated blueberries. Both were simply superb.
Capeo is a bustling bistro, with plenty of hard surfaces that can make quiet conversation tough when things are busy. It was certainly busy on our visit with every table taken at 6:15 p.m. on a foggy Saturday in mid-January.
425 Main St.
North Little Rock 376-3463 capeo.us
Capeo has a large and diverse wine list. The bargain is the half-bottles of Francis Ford Coppola chardonnay and merlot, $17 and $18, respectively, which means you're getting a nice-sized glass of premium California wine for $8.50 and $9.
5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Credit cards accepted, full bar.