I found myself staying Rockford, IL one evening recently. I had to do an early morning training there and I decided that even though it was a 90 minute drive from home, I'd just spend the night in Rockford rather than making the early morning drive and not be fresh for the training. I was in the mood for pizza that evening and I found a place in downtown Rockford by the name of Capri Restaurant and Pizza (see map). It is an old time Italian restaurant that has a history as colorful and lively as the stucco walls inside and out, along with the large mural that adorns one wall in the main dining room.
Vito Grisanzio was born in Italy and moved to America with seven of his nine siblings in the late 50's. They ended up in Chicago and all worked various restaurant jobs at different points in their lives.
Vito was invited by two childhood friends who had settled in Rockford and opened a restaurant, the Capri, a few years before. Not knowing a word of English before he moved to Rockford, Vito ended up learning the restaurant business from his two friends. After seven months, Vito called his brother Domenic to invite him to Rockford to work with him at the restaurant. It wasn't long after that, the Grisanzio brothers bought the Capri in 1963.
The Grisanzio's grew the Capri's business over the years and it soon became known as "THE" Italian restaurant in Rockford. It was also the favorite pizza restaurant for thousands in the area and was well-known in Northern Illinois for having the best pizza around.
The first significant change to the Capri happened in 1979 when Vito and Domenic bought the building next to them, an old bar called "The Navy Club". They closed up their front entrance and began to make their back entrance in the alley/parking lot directly behind the building. They effectively doubled their dining space and put in a little bar area off the kitchen.
In the early 80's, the Grisanzio brothers split their business and Vito stayed at the original location. He and his wife, Janette, had three sons - Domenic (named after his uncle), Vito, Jr., and Michael. Vito Grisanzio still works at the Capri as does his wife and his sons, Vito, Jr. and Michael. Domenic and his wife help out in the restaurant when needed. This is the 48th year the Grisanzio family has owned the Capri making it the oldest single family Italian restaurant in Rockford.
The sign on the front door along State Street in Rockford told me that the main entrance was around the back of the Capri. I found the parking lot just to the south side of the building and went in the main doors under the lighted Capri sign. You go past a big picture window that looks directly into the kitchen at the Capri. One of the cooks was making a pizza, rolling it out before putting the toppings on. I was greeted by a matronly hostess at the stand next to the bar area and she asked if I wanted to sit at the bar or in the dining room. I decided to sit in a booth in the dining room that evening. I had a Chicago Tribune that I wanted to read with my meal and it was sort of dark in the bar area.
As I said, the Capri had a full mural on the side wall of the main dining room. With the high back booths, sturdy tables and chairs with subdued lighting, the Capri had a real old world Italian feel to the place. The hostess showed me to a booth and dropped off a menu. I said, "I understand that you're famous for your pizza."
She said, "We're pretty well-known for our pizza, yes." It wasn't long before a waitress came over to get my drink order. I just ordered a Bud Light and looked over the menu.
Although I knew I was going to get a pizza, I wanted to see what other Italian items the Capri had on their menu. It was definitely a full menu at the Capri with a number of pasta dishes, chicken and seafood entrees with an Italian twist, sandwiches and even a filet mignon for those not looking for full Italian food. The Capri also featured a family style Italian dinner that allowed groups of four or more to order two different types of pasta with meatballs and two different entrees. Along with that came a family style salad, garlic bread and pizza bread for $16.50 a head. I'm sure that would have been a big deal for some families to get the family style dinner at the Capri.
But, nope - I was there for the pizza. When the waitress came back with my beer, I was ready to order. I got my standard Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom. Even though they had seven inch personal pizzas, I went with a twelve inch pizza knowing that what I couldn't eat tonight would keep in my hotel room's refrigerator and be able to warm a couple three slices up in the microwave for breakfast the next day. She told me it would be about 15 to 20 minutes on the pizza and I told her to keep checking back on me for my beer level. And she did.
When the pizza finally showed up, it was cut into party slices. I like the square party cut pizzas the best. The crust was thin, but not overly thin like I like a little bit more. It had an ample amount of toppings including fresh mushrooms.
The first bite told me three things - First, the crust was a little too stiff and crunchy for my taste. I like the dough a little more soft and chewy for a thin crust. Secondly, the sauce had a sort of sweet and smoky taste to it. It was different from a lot of pizza sauces I've had and I'll say that it wasn't bad. It took a couple more bites for me to decide if I liked it or not. And I finally realized I did. And last, the sausage came in the big chunks that I like, but it was pretty bland to the taste. I like a good fennel Italian sausage, but some pizza places (such as Lou Malnati's in Chicago) say that fennel hides the real taste of the sausage. The Capri's Italian sausage did not have fennel with it.
Still, it was a good pizza, not the best I've ever had, but better than I can get at most places back home in the Quad Cities. I was able to eat just over half the pizza and I saved my last piece that I was going to eat that evening to be what I call the "honey pot" piece in the center of the pizza (above right). It's generally the piece where all the flavors congregate and the crust is usually sopped with a combination of sauce, grease and cheese. But the crust of the Capri's pizza didn't allow for anything to seep into it, it was too hard and brittle.
I kept what was left of the pizza and had my waitress box it up. It did keep well overnight and I did have about two or three pieces in the morning and threw the rest out before I left the hotel.
The most pleasantly surprising thing about the Capri was the bill. For a 12" cheese and three topping pizza, the price of the pizza was $10.25. Now, that's cheap for a pizza. My waitress was attentive and got a nice tip, as well. It was a great value, to say the very least.
About a week or so after I was in Rockford, I happened to run into an old friend in an audio store in the Quad Cities. He had moved to Rockford a few years ago and I told him that I'd been to the Capri recently for pizza. He said, "The locals seem to like Capri the best, but I think there's a couple others that are better."
I don't get up to Rockford all that often (even though it's pretty close to home), but he did give me a couple suggestions to try on my next visit. Still, for an old time pizza/Italian restaurant with a great value I'm still glad I gave the Capri a try. For the price, the pizza was above average.