Capri cuisine - Osteria Capri serving gourmet Italian and seafood dishes
Opening a restaurant is a high-risk proposition at the best of times. These days, with COVID-19 precautions, limited occupancy, and a staggering 85 percent of restaurants at serious risk of closing in the coming months, it seems to be too serious a risk, like a poker player drawing to an inside straight.
But on the Isles of Capri, AJ Black exudes a serene confidence. The chef-owner of Osteria Capri, Black opened his new waterfront restaurant in October, business is strong, and he has every expectation it will continue that way.
“I’m not concerned with finances. I am a man of faith,” he said. “I never had any debt. Also, I trust this country will always bounce back. I love this country.”
Getting the restaurant open was a challenge, Black said, but nothing he and his staff couldn’t handle. “A lot of problems, but by day we open I already forgot. I’ve been trying to do this for two years.” He fell in love with the waterfront location of what used to be for decades the Blue Heron, and the small space there, although there is plenty of outside seating.
Black is a longtime veteran of the Southwest Florida restaurant scene, having spent over 10 years at Il Tesoro on Sanibel Island, and the world restaurant scene before that, having owned eateries in New York and Rome. A native of Sicily, Black grew up in the food service business, and honed his culinary skills at the Italian Culinary Institute.
A true Sicilian despite the name Black, AJ makes full use of his hands when he speaks, almost as if he is conducting the conversation like a symphony. His birth name was Antonello Jacopo Maximus Cuoco.
The major emphases at Osteria Capri are “Italian” and “seafood,” reflecting Black’s own tastes and background, along with another — “organic.”
“Everything we serve is organic. We don’t have any farm-raised fish, no additives,” he said. From his time in the area, he has established relationships with seed-to-table food purveyors, and searches out fresh local seafood.
“The worst thing is to disappoint someone,” said Black, which ties into his preference for a small establishment. “All my life I’ve been into small restaurants.”
To ensure that they are not trying to serve too many, and also to help with social distancing, the restaurant works on reservations only, and does not accept walk-in diners. With the ever-evolving health situation, and the onset of the season, hours of operation are subject to change; the Osteria was just starting to serve lunch in mid-November.
Osteria Capri is a family operation, with Black’s wife Jelena, mother-in-law and brother-in-law all working with him, and a brother recently retired. Beyond that, he has a longtime group of staffers who have become his “restaurant family.”
To open, Black oversaw an extensive remodel, both in the front of the house, and the kitchen, where he proudly showed off his high-tech wood and gas-fired Genoese stove – “the best in the world. I built the restaurant around this oven.”
While Osteria Capri has sweeping waterfront with expansive sunset views, Black says the only thing that ensures patrons will return is the meals they are served.
“The only attraction for our restaurant is food. I make sure you’re gonna have a great meal.”
Black said his personal favorites are seafood dishes, but then proceeded to name some of the other dishes, including braised meats such as beef short ribs, and Osteria’s homemade pasta such as fettucine, ravioli and lasagna. Along with local seafood, he sources octopus from Boston and Spain. Many dishes, including the fish of the day, can be served in your choice of styles, including Toscana, Livornese, or Portofino.
Some of the specialty dishes can get pricey, but Black takes pride in offering a range of dishes and prices, with a Margerita pizza available for $15. There is a rotating lineup of entertainers.
For Black, food is fuel and life, all tied in with his personal philosophy on which he waxes poetic, with each point emphasized by his hands. He has turned his beliefs into a restaurant – Osteria Capri.
If you go:
387 Capri Blvd., Isles of Capri