As one of the proprietors of Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant, Frank Capitanini handled everything from the red sauce to the red carpet.
He brought in tomatoes from his garden for the marinara and sampled it to make sure it was just right. At the front of the house, he helped people celebrate birthdays, graduations and engagements. And when Luciano Pavarotti had a craving for Italian food, he fed him linguini with meat sauce — and made sure the opera superstar had an extra quart to bring back to his hotel, with some bread for dipping.
Mr. Capitanini, the second of three generations to operate the 91-year-old restaurant, died Saturday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from age, according to his daughter-in-law Pamella Capitanini. He was 85.
He was named Franklin Delano, after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by Italian immigrant parents grateful for the opportunities America afforded them.
His father Alfredo settled in River Forest, where he used his half-acre plot to grow lettuce, tomatoes, basil, oregano and zucchini used at the Italian Village. Frank tended the plot every morning, and his family believes he might have been the first restaurateur to batter and fry up zucchini flowers for a tasty dish.
Young Frank attended Fenwick High School and the University of Notre Dame. After getting out of the Army, he and his siblings took over management of Italian Village in 1955. He worked in the kitchen. His sister Ave Maria Capitanini greeted and seated diners. His brother Ray worked the front of the house.
They weathered multiple ups and downs, from a drop in business in the late 1960s — when people stayed home because of anti-war protests and civil unrest after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — to the drying up of the three-martini lunch to the low-carb era.
The original Italian Village is on the top floor, with sister restaurants La Cantina on the lower level and the contemporary Vivere on the first floor.
Mr. Capitanini’s rigatoni was famous. (See recipe below for Rigatoni di Franco.)
And he was adept at taking care of celebrities. Italian Village hosted an engagement party for Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx.
Back when Barbra Streisand was singing at Chicago nightclubs, “the Italian Village was the first restaurant she ever ate in in Chicago,” Pamella Capitanini said. She liked the pasta primavera. “Frank and Ray were so proud,” she said.
Mr. Capitanini knew that:
• Sinatra ordered the chicken Parmigiana, and Barbara Marx Sinatra preferred her pasta with broccoli.
• Mayor Richard M. Daley liked the steamed whitefish with a side of pasta marinara.
• Jon Bon Jovi would order the chicken Marsala with broccoli.
• Racecar driver Mario Andretti went for the veal Saltimbocca.
• “Brady Bunch” mom Florence Henderson liked the pasta olio.
For much of his life, Mr. Capitanini worked 80-, 90-, even 100-hour weeks. In his 60s, when the third generation of Capitaninis started taking over, he took a step back. He enjoyed getaways to West Palm Beach and Aspen.
Every day, he rose around 5 a.m. and walked three to five miles. Between his walks and gardening, “His legs were always a beautiful golden brown,” Pamella Capitanini said.
In the evening, he’d treat himself to a VO Manhattan.
When he ate out, he never complained about the food or service, according to his daughter-in-law, and “he was a very generous tipper.”
Every five years, he treated himself to a new Cadillac, usually in a champagne hue.
In addition to his brother, he is survived by daughters Gina and Lisa, sons Frank and Alfredo, fiance Donna Curry, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His first marriage ended in divorce.
The restaurant — whose front has been draped in purple-and-black bunting in his honor — will be closed Thursday for his funeral. Visitation is 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Peterson-Bassi Chapels, with a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest.
Rigatoni di Franco
1 1/2 lbs. chicken, thigh meat, ground 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved 4 tbsps. fresh garlic, chopped fine 2 cups chicken broth 1 cup tomato sauce 4 tbsps. fresh basil, julienned 4 tbsps. olive oil 4 tbsps. Parmigiana cheese, grated Salt and pepper to taste 1 1/2 pounds cooked rigatoni
Add olive oil to pan to heat. Add ground chicken. Saute lightly for 4 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add cherry tomatoes and cook until tomatoes start to break down. Add chicken broth and tomato sauce. Cook until incorporated and hot. Add basil. Remove from heat, and add cooked Rigatoni. Mix gently. Top with grated Parmigiana. Four 8-ounce servings.