I never planned on reviewing Capital Crave, an easygoing sports bar right next to the VFW on Old National Pike.
Tucked behind a curve in the road where the Golden Mile merges with Alt-40, the nondescript restaurant is easy to miss unless you’re looking for it. Its menu, replete with burgers and wings and hearty Italian-American favorites, doesn’t exactly scream for a critical review. And it’s been established in the same location for a decade, frequented by local families and long-time customers from the post next door.
But over the three years I’ve lived in Frederick, Capital Crave has snuck up on me. When I reviewed local pizza joints last fall, leaving the restaurant off my list, at least a half a dozen people emailed to excoriate my mistake. Capital Crave has the best pizza in Frederick County, they told me. Another friend raved about its wings, speaking in the hushed tones of a diplomat conveying sensitive state secrets.
That word of mouth has more than made up for the somewhat discreet location, said owner Chris Mattia, who started the restaurant as a bid to get into business school. Twenty years ago, he had dreams of attending The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, a premier MBA program that requires its students to have real-world business experience. Why not open a restaurant, Mattia figured, and apply to the program in a few years?
“Well, the restaurant business has a way of taking over,” he told me, a little ruefully. “I never left.”
Under Mattia’s ownership, Capital Crave evolved from a small carryout spot on Hillcrest Drive to its current iteration next to the VFW. Mattia can remember delivering to the post three or four times a day before its members finally convinced him to move.
“They didn’t have a restaurant in the space next door, so they asked me if I’d be interested in opening one,” Mattia said. “At the time, I thought it was way outside my capabilities. I had a little carry-out spot. I never had a liquor license. I never had waitstaff. But then, my brain started turning, and I started wondering how much we could grow.”
Judging by the sheer number of chicken wings served at the restaurant, the answer is quite a bit. I’m not a wings girl (it’s a lot of mess for a morsel of poultry), but even I could appreciate the juicy nibbles served at Capital Crave, glossy with at least a dozen different kinds of sauce. My best advice is to go spicy — even the hottest options only carry a bit of a kick — and opt for the creamy dressing with hunks of sharp bleu cheese. The garlic sauce is deeply savory and somehow buttery, the spicy barbecue is tangy and rich. Every wing, without fail, comes out of the kitchen crispy and infinitely poundable — a fail-safe crowd pleaser.
I wanted to say the same thing about the restaurant’s lasagna, which arrives to the table as a mountainous mass of pasta and oozing cheese. Mattia had regaled me with childhood stories of making Sunday sauce, and I was looking forward to a dinner my nonexistent Nonna could have made.
To its credit, the homemade tomato sauce was strong and distinctive, with an assertive acidity and visible bits of minced garlic. The layers of pasta were stuffed with cheese and generous crumbles of tender ground beef. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the single-serving plate could have fed four comfortably. But the noodles themselves, strangely cold and rubbery, kept the plate from reaching its full potential. Less al dente than rubber band consistency, they lent an odd mouthfeel and distracted from the stronger components of the dish.
Luckily, the same wasn’t true for the equally oozing pizza, topped with the same strong sauce and runny rivulets of melted mozzarella. The crust was airy and light and nicely golden underneath. It’s not a subtle pie, but it is indulgent. I can understand why so many people leapt to its defense.
I can also understand why Capital Crave has such a loyal local following. The menu is accessible and great for families. The low-key bar is comfortable and unpretentious, stocked with Yuengling and Miller and just enough craft brews from Flying Dog and RavenBeer to keep things interesting. The prices didn’t stretch the limits of my local journalism salary. And when Mattia does bar food, he does it well. Just take the half-pound burgers, served on a toasted brioche bun and shaped from locally sourced beef. The meaty handhelds are served with boardwalk-style fries (acceptable) or homemade chicken noodle soup (even better), its aromatic broth swimming with al dente pasta and quartered carrots. Or the ultra-creamy crab dip, served with soft slices of toasted garlic bread.
“We’re in the process of expanding the menu, too, and getting up to 30 beers,” Mattia told me.
The changes might freshen things up after two decades in business, but I have a feeling Capital Crave will be just fine without them.