Where To Eat Old-School Italian Food On The Upper East Side

Why the Beekman 1802 boys love Isle of Capri on the UES

In our new column, The Regulars, notable New Yorkers dish about the neighborhood restaurants they return to again and again.

As much as we love running around this big, bustling town of ours, it can be pretty taxing, too. That's why it pays to be a regular at a restaurant close to home. It doesn't have to be fancy, challenging or fashionable in the least; in fact, it's even better if it's not. This is a place where diners know exactly what to expect and look forward to a dish they've ordered hundreds of times.

And it is, by definition, good. The food is better than it needs to be, and there's a je ne sais quoi that makes it feel like a second home. That's why neighborhood patrons keep it packed night after night, year after year.

Take, for example, Isle of Capri on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The restaurant has anchored the intersection of 61st Street and Third Avenue since 1955, when food importers Vincenzo and Maria Lamanna opened its doors. Devoted locals have been lapping up plates of clams oreganato ($10.50), linguine alle vongole ($16) and zabaglione ($10) on starched white tablecloths in the arch-windowed, statue-dotted main dining room and intimate brick-walled basement ever since. And not just "locals" in the abstract sense—actual customers who have been dining there for 60 years and who are now tended to by the couple's daughters, Jane and Gloria, and granddaughter, Donna.

Portraits of friends and family hang on the walls | Fresh tomatoes in the antipasto tower

That's why Beekman 1802 owners (purveyors of goat milk soap and handmade local goods) and The Amazing Race champs Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell say they never came close to approaching "regulars" status, despite dining there once or twice a month for a decade and considering it their go-to celebration spot—and they don't mind at all.

In the early 2000s, the couple bought an apartment together up the street. Whenever they'd wander by, they would wonder why a seemingly non-fancy restaurant was constantly packed. After they spied a 50s-era Isle of Capri menu in a New York Public Library exhibition, they were sold on giving it a whirl. What they found was a menu essentially unaltered for half a century—and something of an obsession. "It's the best Italian we've had in Manhattan," Ridge declares.

He echoes New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, who dubbed Isle of Capri "almost without question the best small Italian restaurant in New York" back in 1976—the same year New York Magazine's restaurant critic, Gael Greene, dubbed it a "philanderers' hideaway" and advised "prudent lovers" to share a vitello tonnato and an arugula salad so as not to overindulge.

The antipasto tower | Veal piccata | Ceramic wall hangings

Though its reputation as a hotbed of infidelity remains unclear, so far as Ridge can tell, hanky panky isn't high on the menu for the restaurant's current "silver-haired" clientele. "We would watch these wonderful older Upper East Side customers sit there and have their whole three-course meal and not say a single word to each other. After you've dined together every night for 40 years, what do you have to say?"

In his own husband's case, that would inevitably be: "Please pass the veal picatta ($21) and the osso buco ($28)," the dishes he's gone back to time and time again.

"You're never going to be surprised, and I think that's a great thing," Kilmer-Purcell says. "In this super-foodie culture, we have to be surprised, and we have to have a discovery at every meal. This is Italian food, but it's not Mario Batali Italian. It's New York Italian—a whole different subset."

But with the shuttering of clubby Upper East Side stalwarts like Gino, Bravo Gianni and Elaine's, he worries it's fading away—even if he never quite fit in.

"The neighborhood is formal, and it's a vanishing breed of this restaurant. They have waiters in tuxes or some sort of formal wear, napkins draped over the arm," Kilmer-Purcell reminisces. "It's not just that it's delicious food, it reminds you that in a world of informality, there's still a lot of decorum. It's nice that you don't feel comfortable wearing jeans sometimes. It's nice that food comes in a certain order and at a certain pace, and you don't challenge that."

Despite the fact that they never got the "regulars" treatment at Isle of Capri—greeted by name, their favorite cocktails going into the shaker the second they stepped in—Ridge doesn't mind. "It's something you have to work up to. You don't just become part of this exclusive club overnight. You have to pay your dues. They might take 20 years to be paid."

The couple's million-dollar Amazing Race victory allowed them to relocate full-time to their farm in Upstate New York (though they come back to the neighborhood as often as possible), knocking them off the restaurant's tenure track a couple years ago. Ridge is hopeful that NYC's food obsessives will make the trek and embrace a classic.

"I say to all those people who love Roberta's out in the hinterlands, they should come back to the mothership and see what true Italian is like in New York City. They should try it before it goes away."