The story of Fremantle’s Capri Restaurant is a long one. It spans six and- a-half decades and draws on the passion of four generations of the same family.
When I visited to speak to the legendary Pizzale family, the special of the day was pappardelle con ragu bianco (pappardelle in a ragu of white wine, herbs and slow-braised veal shoulder). Minestrone soup, a signature dish, is served with bread as a complimentary entrée with all main meals – except for Tuesdays when yellow split pea soup serves as a replacement resulting in the occasional disappointment of unknowing Tuesday diners. The other periodic disappointment is from the dinner guest anticipating the chicken broth, which is actually only served at lunch. But things are done a certain way here – the moment of disappointment makes way for a realisation; tradition is why we love this place.
Oddone had been in Australia since before World War II. He worked on the mines in Kalgoorlie until, like many Italians, he was arrested and interned during the war. His wife Santina had no interest in coming to Australia but in 1952 their son Corrado visited his dad for the first time, fell in love with the country and moved here. His mother followed, finally joining Oddone in his adopted country. The restaurant became their life.
Oddone Pizzale and Osvaldo Tagliaferri bought the Capri in 1954 but it was looking to be a short era when they sold it just a couple of years later. However, when the buyer reneged on payments and disappeared, Oddone serenditpitously took it over again and so started the long and ongoing story of the Pizzale family and the Capri Restaurant. Meanwhile, Corrado, who had been working as a panel beater, returned to Italy to marry his girlfriend Maria, bringing her to Australia soon after by boat. Their first stop after disembarking at Fremantle Port was the Capri. Maria remembers the restaurant being closed because it was after 2pm. They sat in “the booth” – now known as “the family table” – with Corrado’s parents and she ate a quarter chicken with spaghetti – a dish I still see on the menu today. It was the most meat she had ever eaten.
When Oddone passed away in 1966, Corrado and Maria became heavily involved in the restaurant. Today, Maria – better known as ‘Nonna’ – remains the boss. She is there every day, quality control at its best. It’s been decades since Maria has thrown food in the face of drunk and abusive customers, but luckily it’s also been a long time since the Capri has had to deal with customers of that nature.
Six of Maria’s nine grandchildren now work at the restaurant. They are the fourth generation to continue the story of the Capri. The relatives extend the family mentality by saying that anyone who dines here also becomes part of the story. Certainly during the week the bulk of the diners are regulars and just like the staff, the diners are multigenerational. Exhibited perfectly when recently a boy took his girlfriend there on their first date. He had been eating at the Capri with his family since he was five.
Naturally the restaurant and broader premises, which includes expansive accommodation on the first floor, became either home or a second home to all the Capri dynasty.
Corrado and Maria’s four children grew up in and around the restaurant. Their daughter Carla remembers being petrified if she was sent to the cellar by herself to get a box of vegetables. The cellar ran the full length of the building (all the way to Collie Street) and had just one light bulb.
The memories are typically happy. Endless games of hide and seek upstairs, (which operated as a boarding house until the 1970s) and making trains out of empty vegetable boxes. Spending time in the beautiful library on the corner across Collie Street (where the Dome Café is now located) and making spiders at Mr Thomas’ home-made ginger beer shop across the road. The Capri itself might be the last functioning remnant of that bygone era.
On Easter Sunday when Carla was six, the restaurant was so busy that she was asked to carry dishes. That was restaurant life and it continued for Carla until many years later when she had a fight with her father and left – to repair the relationship. Her absence lasted seven years but the restaurant became her life again eventually – it’s difficult to draw oneself away from something so fundamental.
While family has held the restaurant together, in many ways the restaurant has also held the family together. Everyone always comes back. Maria’s granddaughter Olivia started washing dishes when she was 13. She eventually studied and lived away but, like her family before her, she was pulled back into it by her heart.
Similarly, Olivia’s cousin Christopher never planned to make his career in the family restaurant. When he was 14 his uncles asked him to work because the restaurant was beyond busy and they didn’t have enough hands to cope. He was thrown in the deep end and said he’d never do it again but passion set in and 14 years later he’s playing a major role in the restaurant, driving the kitchen and, along with his sisters and cousins, molding the future of the restaurant.
“We are here to service the community, providing good, honest fare,” says Christopher. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not.” Customers confess that Capri hasn’t changed much over the decades, which is part of the charm. But of course, small adaptations have been made for the changing business.
Many of the changes have been behind the scenes, driven by the changing retail market and OHS regulations. Maria remembers live chickens arriving in the hand barrow and Corrado carrying sides of meat slung over his shoulder down the street from the markets to the restaurant, or on a wooden tray in the back of his station wagon from the butcher. This type of thing is, of course, no longer.
New dishes have been introduced over the decades and the restaurant has evolved with each generation.
I returned to The Capri a few days later to take photos, and that day I was lucky enough to be sent home with lunch of veal cotoletta (cutlet) served with a side of spaghetti bolognese – a Capri signature dish. It was delicious and my young kids loved it too. Not surprising given this is, inherently, family food.
So of course I had to return again for dinner with my family. We enjoyed, as is the case at The Capri, all of the signature dishes that so many have enjoyed before us. How much of the enjoyment is the food itself and how much of it is the story, no one’s sure. What we do know, is that we too are now part of the Capri story – a new family of regulars.
Visit – Capri Restaurant, 21 South Terrace, Fremantle