Head-turning dishes—that’s what you get at Acappella. No doubt the flames leaping several feet into the air will catch your eye. Or if your back is turned and you’re close enough, the sudden gust of heat on the back of your neck might do the job.
In the aftermath, what’s left are wonderful, wafting aromas that hint and tease—white wine and lobster, port and lamb, veal and vermouth.
Acappella turned 20 a few weeks ago. The owner and executive chef, Sergio Acappella, remembers just once in all the two decades of flambéing that the sprinklers went off. “I had to dry clean everybody before they left the restaurant,” he said.
The discreet entrance of Acappella escaped my notice for several years even as I worked a couple of blocks down. The restaurant regularly attracts its fair share of celebrities. The late James Gandolfini used to disembark from his scooter and head to his favorite table.
Carmelo Anthony, Alicia Keys, and Samuel Jackson have all dined there, but there is no sign of their passage, no splashy rows of photos on the walls. His PR people might have despaired, but Acappella never cared to milk it for Page Six fodder.
Besides the cuisine, impeccable service is Acappella’s great pride. Staff is trained to get a feel for guests’ moods as soon as they walk in the door.
Within a few minutes of arriving at Acappella, my friend and I had come in contact with six or seven of the staff already, all efficient and unobtrusive. We had been greeted, seated (one waiter each to pull out a chair for us), served water and drinks, and offered a multitude of complimentary hors d’oeuvres.
Sergio’s brother, Tomassino, the general manager, said the hospitality comes with family tradition. “It comes from receiving guests at home. Back then, we didn’t have computers, we didn’t have cellphones, iPads, all these gimmicks and gadgets, so people entertained themselves with friends and family. Every Friday, Saturday night, we’d have guests over, the house would be full of cousins, family friends. And so, it’s how you greet the guests at home. We consider this to be the extension of our home.”
“I run this place like a dictator,” Sergio then quipped (“That’s not true,” his brother said), and pointed out their newest waiter had worked there for eight years, and a good many of them since the restaurant’s opening 20 years ago.
The free banter between brothers Sergio and Tomassino makes you feel like you’ve indeed just stepped into their home.
Though from Rome, they spent much of their childhood in the Bronx, altogether seven siblings and three generations sharing a home. “It was great growing up in the Bronx. Really good friends, good family, good traditions,” Sergio said. “You can either go on the right road, or you can go on the left road. It’s like that everywhere I’m pretty sure. But the right road is not too fun without tasting a little of the left.”
“All good cooking starts at home,” Sergio said.
“Give your mother credit,” interrupted Tomassino.
“I know. I’m going to give my mother credit, I’m gonna give my grandmother credit also,” Sergio said.
Sergio has worked in the restaurant business since age 12, in positions both in the kitchen and the front of the house. When it came time to open his own restaurant, he wanted something unique and special.
Over the years working at other restaurants he had meticulously filled a series of notebooks, with observations ranging from dishes to behavior of the owners and staff, and how he thought things should be done. “And I put all the good in here [at Acappella] and kept all the bad out.”
From the beginning, he sourced organic and free-range products. Like the hospitality, it was an extension of his family’s ethos—of growing their own produce, and even ordering from the farmer a whole cow or lamb to be butchered or shared. Pastas and cured meats were homemade.
Dining at Acappella
Acappella’s dining room isn’t huge, but feels larger, because of the 16-foot ceilings (the height is good for when you’re flambéing too, it turns out).
On the back wall, a large replica of a painting of Piero della Francesca’s Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, dates back from when the restaurant was featured in the first episode of “The Sopranos.” (A close look reveals quite a resemblance between the Duke and Sergio.)
Power lunches define midday, where deals are closed, and then a couple of days later, celebrated.
Acappella then undergoes a magical transformation in the evening, when day gives way to night, the lights dim, and the restaurant takes on a romantic feel.
Guests are immediately welcomed with a few dishes of amuse-bouches on the house—besides bread and butter, you’ll find chunks of Parmigiano, carved out of a huge quarter-wheel (it lasts about a day), homemade sweet soppressata, bruschetta, and slices of fried zucchini. The latter is liberally topped with red chili flakes for a nice kick and plenty of chopped garlic.
Sergio is a man who loves his garlic, and you see it again and again in his dishes. “If I could have a drink with garlic,” he said, “it would be the number one drink for me.”
About 60 percent of the dishes are classic northern Italian, and the rest his own creations.
Appetizers like New Zealand mussels with pancetta, or tuna tartare with sturgeon caviar and avocado open up the palate, while pasta can also be had as an appetizer.
Notably the size of the trio of pastas is just right, and the dish sings with patriotic Italian colors.
Matchmaking sauce to pasta shape beautifully, the basil pesto is paired with fusilli, clinging to every little surface of the corkscrew shape. It had me scraping for every last drop of it.
At the opposite end of the plate was a freshly made pappardelle—those long wide strips of pasta—pappardelle boscaiola, and its rustic inspiration: the forest floor. A mushroom-based sauce, hazelnuts are grated over the pasta the way that Parmigiano might be used, with a touch of creamy mascarpone. It would be hard to say, between this and the pesto, which was my favorite.
The Paglia et Fieno (translated as “straw and hay” for the green and yellow strands of pasta) was accompanied by a simple, bright sauce of plum tomatoes.
The dish was an ode to the beauty—and deliciousness—of simplicity.
Another not-to-be-missed dish for mushroom lovers would be the fragrant, homemade agnolotti stuffed with wild porcini. It is a bit of mushroom heaven.
For a northern Italian touch, polenta is baked with Fontina cheese and served with a cognac sauce and porcini mushrooms. Like the pastas, it is comforting, and makes you look forward to what’s coming next.
“Fire makes everything taste better,” my dining companion said as we watched waiters work tableside. Flambé dishes make a terrific show, but are a rarity in this day and age, as it takes experienced waiters to prepare them.
Flames transform lobster, along with white wine, butter and “garlic, garlic, and garlic.”
Tender, fragrant, light, this 3.5-pound Lobster Arrabiata is transporting. I am not the only one who thinks so, apparently. “I go through lobster like people go through eggs in the morning,” Sergio said.
A rack of lamb is also flambéed, paired with a port sauce, whose sweetness goes to perfect the tender lamb.
Ordering off-menu is graciously accommodated. “I’ll cook you anything you want. If you want something a certain way, I make sure I make it better than you ever had before, ever,” Sergio said, and that includes accommodating various dietary restrictions, including gluten-free.
Recently he had a diner who wanted a Dover sole but didn’t want any salt or flour or butter. He proposed to grill it with a sauce of garlic, olive oil, and lemon. Her reaction: “Wow, I didn’t know something could taste so good without salt and without butter and without this other stuff.”
Acappella serves northern Italian cuisine, but has steakhouse-quality cuts, from prime steaks to Colorado racks of lamb to racks of veal—all organic.
Next week, Acappella will bring in game, like wild boar, pheasant, and venison. The season for the much prized and sought-after white truffles will also start soon, and the restaurant will serve them with pappardelle.
For Dessert Too, Flambé
When it comes to dessert, the showstopping banana flambé is a classic of the house.
The waiter peels off orange zest with deft strokes of a knife. The zest, banana liqueur, Grand Marnier, the orange juice, strawberries, and butter are flambéed in the pan. The warm mixture is then added to vanilla gelato. It’s not very filling, and an incredible finale to a meal.
Or should you exhibit any indecision, the waiter might recommend trying everything, in small portions, so you can rotate bites between a ricotta cheesecake, a rich chocolate cake, and a very boozy, very caffeinated tiramisu.
A gracious, parting house tradition is the complimentary glass of grappa, or as Acappella likes to call it, “Italian moonshine,” which intrigues some, and not others. Acappella makes it himself, with different fruits depending on the season. Cherry grappa was on offer this summer; it has given way to raisin grappa, made with golden raisins. It is smooth drinking, fragrant and potent. A fierier and very popular fig grappa is also available year-round.
It is, as Sergio would say, “good stuff,” an expression that stuck from his youth. All of it is indeed very good stuff. The prices are also steep (at about $78 per person, with a drink, on average) but reflective of the superlative food and service, all served up with a good dose of fire.
1 Hudson St.
Monday–Friday noon–3 p.m.
Monday–Friday 5 p.m.–10:30 p.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.–11 p.m.
Closed on Sundays