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Ciao, Bella! Il Capuccino Ristorante feeds your hunger and your heart

Everybody has an old faithful. In my family, it’s Il Capuccino.

At this 50-year-old institution of the East End restaurant world, every bite feels like a warm hug. Clean plates are a common occurrence.

Red, white and straw (as in covered Chianti bottles) are the flagship colors of Caps. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

Tucked away in an unassuming red building on Madison Street just before you hit downtown Sag Harbor, it’s a place that feels straight out of central casting (cue the shot of a classic, old-school Italian-American trattoria!). But for the first 25 years of my life, at least, it was better than a movie. It was where we were able to gather as a family for a meal all five of us could enjoy. It was a no-brainer: My mom didn’t have to cook and my baby sister (who only ate white food until she was 9) could easily find something that was better than pasta with butter or bone-dry chicken fingers.

Owner Jack Tagliasacchi, holding a photo as himself as a young chef. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

It’s where we went for anniversaries, birthdays and Christmas Eve dinners — or when we were all hungry and couldn’t decide where else to eat. The occasion didn’t really matter; if that’s where we were going it was always a good thing, and exactly what owner Achille “Jack” Tagliasacchi has been cultivating for families and visitors alike for the better part of the five decades.

“We try to please the American public,” says Tagliasacchi, “but we also want to maintain pieces of our tradition.”

He’s certainly done so, as a restaurant owner and as an integral member of the greater Sag Harbor community. Just this past year, he and Nada Barry of the Wharf Shop were honored at the Founders Celebration and Dinner at Baron’s Cove (a place Tagliasacchi once worked many moons ago, but that’s another story).

But while “Caps,” as it’s known locally, holds a special place for my family, the magic is the special place it also holds for so many others, raffia-covered Chianti bottles and all. And it’s why, for all these years, it’s endured.

Dreaming a new world

When asked why he left his home in Italy over 70 years ago, Tagliasacchi’s answer is simple: “Adventure!”

With a dream of moving to the United States, the veteran restaurateur was just 22 years old when he left his home in Parma — “where the cheese comes from” he smiles — to embark on his voyage across the Atlantic. Italy was in a state  of transition, having  been officially declared a democratic republic only a few years earlier and ditching its old monarchy structure. The country was also still digging its way out of the ravages of World War II. Still, even though it was a time marked by the dwindling migration to the Americas, that dream of adventure burned bright in young immigrants like Tagliasacchi. After a two-week journey, he landed not in North but South America, in Argentina.

“I arrived full of spirit,” he says of his initial landing in Buenos Aires. Although he was trained as an accountant, Tagliasacchi was more than certain that  career path wasn’t for him. “In the part of Italy I come from, everybody knows how to cook,” he says.

Following family tradition, he opened his first restaurant in 1955 in San Martin, a city in the Mendoza province. Word soon got out among the numerous Italian-immigrant truck drivers that “there was a restaurant with a guy from Parma cooking,” he says.

During this time, his firstborn son, Fabio, contracted polio. With the best medicine available being in the United States, Tagliasacchi and his family were able to move to Miami, thanks to assistance from his brother-in-law. He applied for a job as a cook and later became executive chef at a Hollywood, Fla., restaurant owned by one of the era’s most popular crooners, Julius La Rosa. With his innate head for business, along with his finely skilled culinary hands, Tagliasacchi’s network, plus his financial opportunities, really expanded.

“I realized while I was working in that environment, this is money,” he says. “It was a time of exponential growth for me.”

All roads lead to Sag Harbor

New York was the next logical step. Moving to Queens in the early 1960s, Tagliasacchi’s contemporaries suggested he visit the East End of Long Island. So he did, landing a job as chef garde manger at Canoe Place Inn in Hampton Bays.

“The head chef said I was more qualified than he was,” he recalls, noting that as the reason he almost immediately took over in the executive chef position. 

Soon after, he transitioned farther east to Sag Harbor, where he was executive chef at Baron’s Cove Inn until 1969 when he left to strike out on his own, ultimately opening Il Capuccino in 1973. 

On nearly every night of the week, Tagliasacchi eats dinner at his 50-plus year old restaurant. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

Starting with a much smaller menu — and a much smaller kitchen — than what exists today, Tagliasacchi brought on James “Jimbo” Renner to help him run his kitchen, becoming his executive chef in 1981. They had worked together previously at Baron’s, where Renner had started out as a teenager.

“You don’t get any better,” Tagliasacchi says of his longtime chef. 

In the mid ‘90s, Tagliasacchi expanded his restaurant by purchasing the space next door, which allowed him to add a third dining room and a private dining area upstairs.

“I always wanted to have a nice little Italian restaurant, with a nice, warm atmosphere,” he says. Although a touch disappointed that “at my age” he can’t really cook like he used to, Tagliasacchi is a daily presence at the Sag Harbor locale. He comes in for dinner every night and sits at the same table each time, just past the bar, allowing him to see every single person that walks through the front door. He’s usually just dining with his partner, Lynn, although sometimes it’s a whole-family affair. He drinks sparkling water and his favorite dish is lasagna Bolognese.

“I call them when I’m not coming,” he says.

All in the family

Tagliasacchi’s oldest daughter and general manager, Amber Tagliasacchi-Miller, is there pretty much every day, too.

Picking up where her father left off, she’s become the ubiquitous face of Caps, handling most day-to-day operations and working at least three shifts behind the bar. Detail oriented and a master multitasker, Tagliasacchi-Miller touches nearly every front-of-the-house detail at Il Capuccino; it’s even her voice you hear on the machine when you call to leave a message.

Jack and his daughter, Amber Tagliasacchi-Miller. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

With a palpable penchant for the family business clearly part of her molecular make-up, she started out at her dad’s resto at the ripe old age of 12, working as a prep cook alongside Renner. 

“I would clean the dishes, pick the herbs, cut the mushrooms, bread the veal, bread the chicken,” she says, continuing to rattle off a laundry list of kitchen prep tasks that would dizzy even the most seasoned professionals. “I thought it was great. I would just listen to my Walkman and bang it out.”

By 14, she moved to the front of the house, working as a busperson. By 25, she was managing, taking on inventory responsibilities, creating the schedule and hiring staff. She’s successfully transitioned into that friendly, familiar face at the door that frequent patrons want to see. Highly organized and uber efficient, Tagliasacchi-Miller’s style is precise and methodical yet warm and relaxed. In classic restaurant worker fashion, she can finish a round of drinks for her service bar, restock a tray of wine glasses and put in a to-go order before you’ve even opened your menu.

Meticulously hospitable, she’s taken over the reins from her dad with ease, carrying on the deeply rooted ethos that’s served them well for decades.

“We want this to be a place for everyone, especially the locals,” she says. “We want to keep it friendly and we want to keep it affordable.”

It’s a notion you can feel as soon as you walk through the door. On a near nightly basis, the restaurant serves at least four dining areas, small intimate rooms cozily adjoined by narrow doorways and winding, labyrinthine  halls. Certain parts of the  floor creak underfoot and lush dark wood runs throughout the building. Dimly lit tables are set with red and white checkered table cloths, Chianti bottles hang from the ceiling. All the while, music reminiscent of a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin plays in the background, just loud enough to be heard over the steady murmur of the dining crowd and the constant hustling buzz of Caps’ efficient, often veteran, staff.

Lasagna and loyalty

With the unique distinction of having  one of the longest-running restaurants under the same ownership here on the East End, you might expect that the Tagliasacchis have rotated through a seemingly endless stream of employees to keep the place humming along. But part of the success of Il Capuccino comes from the fact that it’s not just customers who like to stick around, it’s also veteran staff members who have been there from practically the beginning.

Chef Jim “Jimbo” Renner with an order up. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

“Jack showed me the ropes,” Renner says of his boss of more than over 40 years. “He showed me how to make the raviolis and he showed me how to run a business.”

Danielle Corbett, who has waited tables and bartended there for 22 years, says the easy-going natures of both father and daughter make her job that much better. A teacher in Bridgehampton by day, Corbett appreciates not only the warm atmosphere, but the fact that her employers apply that family spirit to their staff as well, always at the ready to accommodate her if there are ever any issues.

“Amber’s really wonderful working around my schedule,” she says. 

Working at Il Capuccino since her early 20s, Corbett is one of the longest-standing employees, just behind Renner and longtime maître d’ Jenny Pagano. 

“In this business, you get stressed and it’s not always easy,” she says. “But at the end of the day, we all laugh. These aren’t just people I work with; you’re treated like family here. We invite each other to our life events, birthdays that sort of thing, and I think people stick around for a while because of that.”

It’s why my family has, and why many others still come for nightly comfort. I can replay our visits over and over in my head. Once seated at our usual table, we were immediately greeted by those now-famous house-made garlic knots: pillowy rolls baked to perfection, piled into a basket fitted with wax paper and drowned with tablespoons of garlicky, oily goodness. My parents would be served a half carafe of the house red, while my sisters and I sipped on our usual beverages: Shirley Temples for them and a Coke for me. Among our go-to northern Italian-inspired dishes were decadent tagliatelle Bolognese, fork-tender veal scaloppini piccata (my only-white-food-eating sister’s favorite) and flounder limone, a lighter, flakier, lemonier version of a francese.

Recently, I returned with friends for a Friday night dinner at Il Capuccino. This time, the carafe of red was for us, but as to the rest … it all felt at once so very familiar and like the sort of a place you see in the movies. It felt like coming home.