Mike Caracappa, who grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, became a fishmonger when his father pulled him out of school at 16 to join the family business. Cara, as he’s known, went on to run 22 seafood warehouses nationwide before selling them to his partner in 2008. “I never owned a restaurant, but I know fish and I know good food,” says the 66-year-old.
The success of Tutta Pesca, his narrow, three-story restaurant in Hoboken, testifies to that. On the ground floor, there’s a tiny fish market and kitchen and virtually no waiting area. On the upper floors are 32 seats, as prized as they are closely spaced. Caracappa bought the building in 2014, renovated it and opened a year ago. “The place gets packed,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t overbook; we don’t want people standing out on the street.’” Lines form there anyway, even on weeknights.
As you might expect, seafood dominates the menu (with a beef and a chicken dish daily). The grilled-octopus appetizer, “an old family recipe,” says Caracappa, involves tenderizing Spanish octopus for three hours, dipping it in boiling water until the tendrils curl, then sautéing it and serving it over sautéed spinach and cannellini beans with a balsamic-glaze dressing. The dish is stupendously good.
Perfectly seared sea scallops in saffron-infused scampi sauce are another delightful starter. A bowl of plump, wild Maine mussels in spicy, chunky fra diavolo sauce is yet another. Even the shrimp cocktail is outstanding—five huge, white, Panamanian specimens with a robust horseradish cocktail sauce. But the superstar appetizer is frutti di mare, a generous mound of poached, chilled mixed shellfish on baby greens in a lemon vinaigrette, for $13.95
Entrées vary based on what looks best at the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, where Caracappa relies on five or six vendors he’s known for years. Among standouts was an inch-thick, pan-seared black sea bass topped with a melange of mussels, tomatoes and spicy chorizo. Another was the steak-like wedge of Florida grouper finished in a white-wine sauce with capers and sun-dried tomatoes. Grilled corvina was sweet and tender in a lemony caper-and-artichoke sauce. Blackened tuna was nicely firm in a spicy Cajun sauce.
Our only disappointing dish was stuffed flounder, in which the fish and its crabmeat filling were lackluster and could barely be distinguished. The two pastas we sampled, both from Vitamia & Sons in Lodi—linguini (with tasty clams) and penne (with salmon in rich vodka sauce) were cooked perfectly al dente.
For dessert, chocolate mousse cake had a soggy sponge-cake bottom; a raspberry layer cake was a bit dry. Stick with the desserts made in house, like the silky crème brûlée or the tremblingly light panna cotta. If you’re lucky enough to snag a piece of Aunt Barbara’s homemade ricotta cheesecake, you’re in for a treat. Each week, Caracappa’s 72-year-old sister makes two large, Italian-style cheesecakes in her Staten Island home.
“She doesn’t use anything imitation,” Caracappa says of the dense, not-too-sweet delicacies. “She just loves doing it.”
What keeps Tutta Pesca from earning a higher rating is not its old-fashioned Italian-American menu. There’s clearly a demand for traditional food done well. The problem is twofold. First, the family members handling reservations seem eager to please, but frazzled and disorganized. The process feels like a gauntlet. Second, once you are seated, you feel a not-so-subtle pressure to move things along. This is reinforced on the menu with a notice that “our reservations are time limited.”
Carapacca clearly knows fish and food. Now he has to figure out how to deal with the challenges of his own success.Click here to leave a comment
Dinner for two:
Dinner, Tuesday-Saturday; brunch, Saturday & Sunday.
Ambience:Boistrous in close quarters.
Service:Friendly but overburdened.