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Who Goes There? Isle of Capri

This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Krieger, 4/22/09]

Going to the Isle of Capri, an Italian joint that has held down the southwest corner of 61st Street and Third Avenue since 1955, is like intruding on someone’s suburban house on the occasion of a large family gathering of moderate significance. I was greeted by at least four members of the owning Lamanna family within a minute after passing through the door, each with a kindly but inquiring face that seemed to say, “Who are you, and what are you doing in my home?” During my dinner there, the various clan members never ceased crossing the room, talking with friends, checking on things and generally hovering.

Some acquaintance of the family enters the eatery roughly every ten minutes, it seems. “Wine?” asked a waiter straight out of central casting (dignified air, romantic accent, pencil-thin moustache) of a beefy businessman regular. “Surprise me,” said the eater. “Are you begin taken care of?” asked another employee minutes later. “I’m always taken care of here,” said the businessman. “It’s like being at home. Maybe, it’s better.”

The living-room-like air extends to the odd, musty smell of cats that hits you when you come in. The main, red dining room is full of arches and alcoves, metalwork, cheesy statuary and family photos. If you wish to dine in private, there are many cubby holes in which to do so. The clientele is aged and loyal. (“Best Italian food in New York!” barked a diner, unsolicited, as I examined a menu while still outside. I had the veal medallions with mozzarella and prosciutto and it was perfectly fine.) The men had lived-in faces, while an alarming number of the women vaguely resembled Sylvia Miles.

The Isle of Capri has a superfluity of help. No one goes unattended to for long. The business, I was informed, began as a café, founded by Vincenzo and Maria Lamanna. Over time, they began selling cheese and prosciutto, until finally converting into a full restaurant. People still refer to a major renovation that occurred more than three decades ago. It appears to currently be run by Vincenzo’s two middle-aged daughters. The place once had a loftier reputation. Craig Claiborne praised it in the Times as “the best small Italian restaurant in New York,” and 1975 and 1976 seals of approval from Cue magazine (!) remain in the window. The family owns the building, ensuring that the Isle of Capri will remain an incongruous oddity on slick, anonymous Third Avenue as long as the Lamanna clan are desirous of a public forum in which to entertain their friends and relatives.
—Brooks of Sheffield