Some people say the study of wine is an art. Others say it’s a science. To Nick Domanico, owner of Tapas Calpe in Cary, Illinois, wine is much more.
“Studying wine is kind of like studying theology,” he explained to me in a recent interview.
“It’s not like studying math or science,” he said. “I studied theology for 10 years and barely scratched the surface” he said. “Religion is an acquired knowledge.” He paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully.
“Wine is like that.”
I laughed and asked him if that meant that drinking wine was a religious experience.
“I guess it’s kind of like that,” he said, breaking into a wide smile.
Cary, Illinois is a typical small midwestern town. A bedroom community on the outskirts of Chicago, it was once a place where everyone knew everyone else.
Some things have changed in the last few decades. The population has increased as Chicagoans move farther away from the city in search of cheaper housing and open spaces. There is more traffic, more people. People no longer know their neighbors. Yet Cary still retains its small-town feel. And Tapas Calpe — full-service butcher shop by day, and tapas restaurant by night — fits right in.
Walking through the door of what was once the Cary Supermarket, you are immediately transported to Spain. Under a pergola of thick green vines sits an eclectic assortment of tables and chairs in different shapes and sizes, where people gather to nibble on tapas, enjoy a glass of wine or sangria, and feast on specialty entrées.
Tapas, originating in Spain, are a small portions of food served on small plates. They are usually ordered one or two at a time, and more as appetite permits. “Tapas” also refers to a style of dining that includes socializing and relaxing with others.
At Tapas Calpe, named after a coastal city in Spain, there is an extensive menu of tapas, both hot and cold. Just reading the description, Chilean Ceviche langoustine, crab, grouper & salmon with mirai corn and hearts of palm marinated in chilean vinaigrette of oranges, limes, latin chiles, tomatoes & cilantro, can make one’s mouth water with anticipation.
Featured daily specials, along with entrées, are listed on a blackboard. And don’t forget the desserts, made from scratch by Nick’s son Jon. The flourless chocolate cake is a personal favorite.
The building, at 133 West Main Street in downtown Cary, is also home to Orchard Prime Meats, a full service-butcher shop. Nick, along with his partner Rich Monfeli, is a butcher by trade. Nick is a third generation butcher, a fact of which he is proud. “My son will be the fourth,” he adds.
Orchard Prime Meats moved to Cary 23 years ago from Lake Zurich, and has been in the current building for about 15 years. In 2008, inspired by his many visits to Spain, Nick decided to open the tapas restaurant, taking advantage of the extra space they had in the store.
“My father-in-law lived in Spain,” he said, “and we visited often. I really know the country and their habits and culture, which is what drew me to do this.”
Spain was also where Nick was introduced to people who had been making wine for generations.
Sitting in the popular Cary restaurant, you would never know this was once a local supermarket. Gone are the cash registers where I once stood, working weekends when I was in my twenties and in need of a second job. Gone are the aisles containing groceries, hand-butchered meat, and everyday staples, where kids could go with a note from their parents to buy their cigarettes for them.
Now light pours in from large picture windows in front, overlooking small tables outside, which are popular in the nice weather. The original exit door is boarded up and provides a backdrop to a guitar player who plays live music on selected evenings. Tall bar stools sit in front of a small bar area, and tables crowd every available space, a testament to the restaurant’s popularity. Reservations are recommended.
Behind the butcher case sits a variety of tempting meats and easy dinner selections such as chicken Dijon and marinated chicken breasts, ready for a quick, easy meal.
“I can tell you what every bottle in here tastes like,” he says. And he loves to recommend one which will complement your meal. Personally, I have yet to try a wine at Tapas Calpe I didn’t love, (or any item on the menu, for that matter).
If you ask him to join you, he will gladly sit down and share his vast knowledge of wines with you. He’s friendly, approachable, and more than happy to sit and visit with you.
Perhaps their website says it best. “This European old-world combination of butcher shop by day, tapas restaurant by night creates a charming and intimate environment. It’s the perfect place to gather at the end of the day for an exceptional meal or linger over a bottle of wine.”
According to one Yelp review, when you dine at Tapas Calpe, dinner isn’t a meal, it’s an experience.
And for those of us born and raised in Cary, it’s also a chance to look back and remember a time when this place sold candy bars for a nickel, and the workers knew you by name. Nick seems to be carrying on that legacy.
As passionate as Nick is about wine, he says his real passion is theology. He claims to have about 500 books on the subject. So next time you are in Cary, come to our little bit of Spain, stay for the food, a hand-picked bottle of wine, and a perhaps a spiritual moment of enlightenment. You won’t be sorry.