KREBS — For the past 62 years, folks who stumbled upon this tiny town in southeastern Oklahoma could be sure they'd find a good place to eat family-style Italian food thanks to the Isle of Capri, 150 SW 7 St.
While Dominic Giacomo was serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he sailed around the Isle of Capri, which was the last bit of inspiration he needed to open a restaurant when he got back home to southeastern Oklahoma.
Giacomo was the fifth of six children raised by his mother, who had to sell homemade foods and Choc beer to miners leaving their shifts to make ends meet.
If the story sounds familiar, it's because his mother was one of many in Krebs who lost a loved one to the mines. While mining brought Italians, Russians and Poles to southeastern Oklahoma to work, those same mines caused a lot of women to show ingenuity when those mines stole their family's primary breadwinner.
Giacomo saw his mother battle to support her family, and vowed to pay her tribute some day.
That day came on Mother's Day in 1950, when he opened Isle of Capri, serving steaks, chicken, Rocky Mountain oysters, ravioli, meatballs and, of course, pasta.
The building looks like a really big home that happens to have a really cool, old-school neon sign in the front yard. That's not accidental.
“This place was built like a house so it could be used as a home in case the restaurant didn't work out,” said Stephanie Fields, who runs the day-to-day along with her aunt Julie Duff. They also get help from Don and Rose Ann Robertson, who ran things before and still work every day in the restaurant.
The food at Isle of Capri is authentic Krebs-style Italian, which means its served family-style, and each dinner includes salad, antipasto, bread, house-made ravioli, meatballs and spaghetti with tomato sauce. There is no chance anyone leaves this place in need of a meal for at least 18 hours.
This isn't rustic Tuscan fare or Neapolitan cuisine; this is Krebs. It's pasta with red gravy and meatballs or Lovera's sausage, steak, fried chicken, lasagna, manicotti, fettuccine Alfredo, crab and lots of cheese and lamb fries. I enjoyed the Isle Style pasta, which was simple spaghetti tossed in a pan with butter, olive oil and enough garlic to protect Krebs from vampires for life. Then they add a little house-made olive salad for a rich, piquant dish that works with virtually any protein or none at all.
Time stands still
The only thing unwelcome in Isle of Capri is time. Or at least it appears to have passed the place over. From the original neon sign out front to the remarkably well-preserved fixtures and furniture within, the Isle must be time-warp friendly. Three dining rooms boast about 250 seats and could probably squeeze in 300 if the fire marshal was on vacation. There is nothing corporate or slick about the Isle. This is a family affair and has the quirky charm to prove it.
Both Fields and Duff grew up in the restaurant, then went off to college to learn a new profession, only to learn the restaurant bug isn't an easy one to shake. Especially when so many of your loved ones made sacrifices to keep it successful enough to sustain the family for generations.
“You grow up in it, and you get a hunger for it,” Fields said. “It's like a production every night.”
Duff continues, “You see the same people come in, and you know what they're going to eat, and what they're going to drink. And they've come to you because they love what you do.”
“You become a part of special occasions, special moments in people's lives,” Fields interjected. “I don't ever want to see this fail. This is our family heritage, and that means a lot to me.”
Goodness of Krebs
Don Robertson, nephew of Dominick Giacomo, said something in an article written years ago that is as true today as it was the day Dom first opened: “We emphasize the family. I think that's what has kept me in this business. I love my customers. They grow on you and especially if you can please them and give them a special night out. It does me great pleasure to see people leave satisfied.”
Dom Giacomo passed away in October 1974 at age 50. But the family refused to bury his dreams with him. The Isle of Capri will serve 1,500 to 2,000 people most weekends. Without it, Pete's Place, Roseanna's and GiaComo's in McAlester would suffer.
I'm a firm believer that food is the best storyteller, and a trip to Krebs, regardless of which of its four long-standing Italian restaurants you choose to visit, is proof of that.
Each has its own tale to tell, and each is worth learning one bite at a time. If you haven't been to Isle of Capri, it's time.
If you go
Isle of Capri is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner from 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.