Alex Capasso, the prominent restaurateur behind dining spots such as Center City's Crow & the Pitcher and the now-defunct Blackbird Dining Establishment in Collingswood, has been charged as part of a federal child pornography investigation, according to court filings obtained Friday by The Inquirer.

FBI agents arrested Capasso, 41, on Monday at his home in Collingswood after he was caught sending an undercover task force agent explicit photos of a girl he identified as the 5-year-old niece of his ex-girlfriend.

He also told the agent that he had repeatedly abused the girl sexually and was looking forward to abusing his soon-to-be born daughter "the very first time we're alone!!," according to court filings.

Capasso, distinctive with his shaved head and salt-and-pepper chest-length beard, said nothing Friday during an appearance in federal court. His lawyer, Maranna J. Meehan, said the chef would not contest his extradition to Washington, where the charges against him were filed.

His ex-girlfriend was also arrested Friday and charged with production of child pornography after agents found several pornographic images on Capasso's phone and laptop of her engaging in sex acts with her niece. The Inquirer is not identifying her because of her relationship to the child.

"It is clear that the defendant is a sexual predator who not only distributed child pornography . . . but produced these images and videos at the expense of the chronic sexual abuse of a 5-year-old child," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsay Suttenberg wrote in a detention memo filed in Capasso's case.

Investigators first encountered Capasso after he responded to an agents' posting on an Internet site frequented by people with a sexual interest in children and incest.

When the agent identified himself as a "perv dad" with a 9-year-old daughter he was willing to offer for sex, Capasso responded that he was "100% serious!" The 9-year-old girl did not exist, prosecutors said.

"No Limits. Nothing Too Nasty," Capasso wrote, according to court filings. "Yes, even the illegal stuff." Later, when asked whether he would be willing to travel to Washington for a sexual encounter, he allegedly replied, "I would do that in a heartbeat."

Throughout his exchanges with the agent this month, Capasso also allegedly attempted to barter photos of his ex-girlfriend's niece for photos of the 9-year-old. He told the agent that he only "touched her when she was asleep" and that he had lost contact with the girl after her mother moved away, according to court documents.

When he was arrested, Capasso purportedly denied that the photos he sent were of anyone he knew. Prosecutors say he admitted trading child pornography, but maintained that he had found the images on the Internet.

During a search of Capasso's phone, however, agents discovered several nonpornographic photos of the same girl depicted at dance recitals and family functions, according to court papers.

Prosecutors said he is expected to face federal charges in Washington of distributing child pornography, a charge that carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.

He will also likely be charged in New Jersey with production of child pornography, Suttenberg said in court filings.

Capasso previously served one year of probation after pleading guilty to a state charge of engaging in lewd or offensive acts in Camden County. The allegations from that 1997 incident could not be determined Friday, but Capasso was originally charged with sexual assault in that case, court records show.

Trained at Brasserie Perrier, Capasso made his mark as one of South Jersey's best young chefs over the last decade and a half, gaining notice at a succession of restaurants, including Max's and Misto, before making his statement as a fine-dining talent with a three-bell rating from The Inquirer ("excellent") for his Blackbird Dining Establishment in 2007.

The success was short-lived, as Capasso eventually moved Blackbird to a more visible location in downtown Collingswood, and it then morphed into the more casual restaurants Westside Gravy and Benny's Burger Joint.

Barely a year later, Capasso was on the move again, this time in a return to Center City with Crow & the Pitcher, a wine bar south of Rittenhouse Square noted for its cheese cart (a gift from mentor Georges Perrier) and decadent burger.

The restaurant's name, a reference to Aesop's fable about a clever bird determined to drink, was a metaphor for overcoming his own struggles, Capasso said: "Where there's a will, there's a way. It's a symbol of strength for me."

Capasso's business partners, Michael Franco and Prajakta Harshe-Patharkar, said they were shocked to learn of the allegations against the chef Friday and said he had been missing from work all week. Capasso's current girlfriend had contacted them to say that he would not return to work for several days because of child-support problems, they said.

Franco said Crow & the Pitcher's staff would keep the kitchen running.

"Nothing is going to change with the service," he said. "I sat down with a few of them [the 20 employees] and told them we're going to make it through this as a family. I'm worried about the people who work there."



Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan and producer Michael Klein contributed to this article.