May 28, 2024

Prodigal Son: Matt Molina Returns To The Capo’s Kitchen

by Joe Bonadio

As a self-identifying foodie who has spent the last two and a half decades bouncing between San Francisco and New York, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the restaurant business. It’s a fascinating game, arguably accounting for much of what makes the two coastal cities so great. And though it has always been a wild space, the restaurant industry was utterly transformed when the pandemic flipped over the chessboard, now just over four years ago. 

Seemingly overnight, food delivery became king, and the mathematics of the industry were inverted. The suddenness of the change derailed scores of veteran operators, many of whom who were simply unable to adapt. And though the category would prove to be surprisingly resilient, the business was forever altered.

Despite all the tumult, the core values of the world’s second oldest profession persisted. Chief among these was the central importance of service. When you ask diners what brings them back to a restaurant, it turns out the main draw isn’t the food. Contrary to what you might think, what’s most important to people is the way they are treated; people return because of the way the place makes them feel.

When we dine out, most of us are essentially looking for the comforts of home—for something that comes close to the welcome we receive from our families and loved ones. And now more than ever, the restaurants that understand this are the ones that rise and thrive. Perhaps that’s why Capo’s, always an excellent spot, seems to have truly come into its own in recent years.

Simply put, Capo’s is as welcoming as your favorite easy chair, and much of that comes down to the people that make it work. In our last blog we interviewed GM Grace Fentress; this week we’ll be talking with Capo’s Kitchen Manager, three-time World Pizza Champ Matt Molina.

Matt helmed the kitchen when Capo’s first opened its doors in 2010, and last month, he rejoined the team after nearly six years away. Lightly edited for length and clarity, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: Matt, how are you?

Matt Molina: I’m doing alright, how about yourself?

JB: I’m doing just fine, thank you. So these are momentous days! You have returned to the kitchen at Capo’s.

MM: I have indeed.

A combination of Chicago Italian sausage, meatball, garlic and ricotta, Capo's Old Chicago was a stunner on the Cracker Thin style

A combination of Chicago Italian sausage, meatball, garlic and ricotta, Capo’s Old Chicago was a stunner on the Cracker Thin style. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: When did this come about?

MM: Just a little over a month ago now. I had opened up a place in Oakland, and it’s still up and going great. But I parted ways with them. I still help out as much as I can, and I’m happy to see that it’s still thriving.

But it’s been really nice coming back to work with Tony, and being in the Capo’s kitchen again. 

JB: Your first home.

MM: It was, yeah. I moved all the way out here from Tucson just to be in this kitchen. It’s nice: I live right up the street, I already know the staff. We all flow together really well, and it’s comfortable. I like it.

JB: That’s cool. You live here in North Beach, and you’ve been doing the commute over the thousand-mile bridge for how long now?

MM: (Laughter) It was about five years, a little more.

JB: What’s it like to just wake up in the morning and walk over to your kitchen again?

MM: It’s cool. I mean, I did like the commute to Oakland. Like when you’re feeling down about yourself, you go to Walmart. And you’re like, okay, I’m not doing too bad. (Laughter)

So when I’m feeling down and I’m on BART, it’s kind of the same—you know, things really aren’t that bad!

But the short commute is obviously awesome, I’m saving a ton of money doing that. And it’s nice that if something comes up, I’m right up the street, and can be there with no problem.

JB: It’s got to shave a lot of time off of your schedule.

MM: A lot, yeah.

JB: And you’re back with Grace (Fentress, Capo’s GM), who you’ve been working with on and off for how many years?

MM: Eight years? Something like that.

With spinach, ricotta and garlic, the Frank Nitti is an all-time favorite, and this time we ordered it on Capo's Detroit Style

With spinach, ricotta and garlic, the Frank Nitti is an all-time favorite, and this time we ordered it on Capo’s Detroit Style. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: A little bird told me that you guys used to date.

MM: Yeah, we were together for about six years.

JB: She’s terrific. You’ve got good taste.

MM: She’s awesome. We’re really close friends. I’m super excited to have her running front of house.

JB: She seems psyched about having you back, too. She talks a lot about how the level of communication has been raised by your return.

MM: Sometimes it’s hard to find a good connection between the front of the house and the back of the house. But Grace and I work together so well. It’s been really nice, because when I worked with her before she wasn’t managing Capo’s. So to come in now and see how she’s really taken control of everything, it’s really cool. It’s so different from the way things were before.

Having a history together, our communication is very open. So instead of having a problem and letting it continue, we work together to come up with a solution. It’s been a little over a month that I’m back, and I can think of only two times that there was a mistake, whether it was in the front of the house or in my kitchen. And that’s awesome.

JB: That’s exactly what Grace said. Whenever there is any sort of issue, it’s just a matter of coming up with a solution, dispensing with it, and calmly moving on.

MM: Exactly, and that’s what we do. We keep our teammates happy. There are a couple of guys I hadn’t worked with before, and it can be kind of weird when you’re suddenly in charge, and they’re not used to that. 

I pulled them aside and just let them know, Hey guys: you’re not here to work for me, I’m here to work with you. I’m going to work just as hard as you if not harder, and together all of us are going to do this. I don’t demand respect, I earn it, and I feel like I’ve been doing very well with that. These guys and I, we get along very well.

JB: To say things have changed over the past few years is a massive understatement. How do you feel about the way things have developed at Capo’s since you’ve been gone?

MM: It’s hard to describe, because when I was here before we had a wood-fired oven, and we had a different menu. During Covid they changed things around and reopened, and it runs really smoothly now. Not that it didn’t run smoothly before, but it’s just all different.

It’s cool, because it’s like I stepped into a brand-new restaurant—but I know my way around. I felt bad at first though, because I didn’t know the new menu. (Laughter) So I’m standing there reading off what goes on each pizza, and the guys next to me are like C’mon, dude.

But it’s cool, we all worked together and made it through. There’s an awesome camaraderie there.

The Capo's dining room in full swing, as seen from the Al Capone table.

The Capo’s dining room in full swing, as seen from the Al Capone table. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: I know you’re a creative guy, and you’re always coming up with something. Do you have anything new you’d like to share?

MM: I have to stay busy, and I stay creative. I used to play a lot of music with other co-workers, but they’ve moved out, so I don’t do that as much. But I get creative at some of the bars around the neighborhood. I host a trivia night every Monday, called 108.0 Trivia On The Green, because we host it at a radio station. That’s at Belle Cora, and we also do a Bingo night called Bingo F*ck Yourself, and that’s at Columbus Cafe. And that’s all within a block of my place.

And another thing is, before I’d be getting back from Oakland at almost two in the morning, and with my new schedule I’m done much earlier than that. I have a portable oven, and I can do late night pop-ups around the neighborhood, and sell slices.

JB: The Ooni!

MM: The Ooni, that’s correct. So I set up one night a week outside of Columbus Cafe, and two nights over at Tupelo. Because the majority of the food in the neighborhood is closed down at that time.

JB: What are the hours for those?

MM: It’s typically Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and I do it from 10:30 until about 1:00 AM.

Matt Molina throws a late-night popup in North Beach with chef Taylor Wright, his childhood friend from Arizona.

Matt Molina throws a late-night popup in North Beach with chef Taylor Wright, his childhood friend from Arizona. | Photo Courtesy of Matt Molina

JB: And it switches up in terms of nights between Columbus and Tupelo?

MM: Yeah. It’s really basic, I’m just making 15″ pies and selling them by the slice. I can be as creative as I want, and make my own menu as I’m on the spot creating. It’s fun, I like it.

And I’ve been working on a couple of recipes that I want to run here at Capo’s, too. I’m going to be doing a pairing with Izzy, who runs the cocktails. She’s perfecting a summertime cocktail that’s a little sweeter, with coconut flavors. She’s still working on it, but I’m going to do something a little spicier to pair with it. So together you’ll have a 10″ pizza with a couple of her specialty cocktails. I’m excited to work with her on that, and looking forward to doing some cool pairings in the future.

I’ve also been working on some recipes for wing sauces. At my old shop I did an orange-lemon-pepper glaze for chicken wings that came out really good. I’ve got a few ideas I’m thinking about, and it’s nice because having the kitchen so close, I can go in before we open and really experiment with some things.

JB: Yeah, you can literally go in first thing in the morning if you’ve got the creative urge.

MM: Exactly, because we don’t open until 4:30. So I’ve got plenty of time to dig in and hammer out some details. I love that stuff.

JB: Keep me posted on all of that. I want a taste!

The Seven Ovens Blog shares the stories behind Tony Gemignani’s remarkable group of restaurants with a wider audience. Remember to bookmark us, and we’ll see you here again soon.