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True to his roots: Q-and-A with Massimo Capra

Celebrated chef Massimo Capra talks simplicity, seasonality and day-to-day operations in a special Q-and-A with Canadian Pizza magazine


December 4, 2019
By Colleen Cross


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“Consistency is the key but you have to know exactly what to be consistent on,” says celebrated chef Massimo Capra.

In the culinary world, Massimo Capra has done it all. The celebrated chef’s impressive resumé includes positions at the famous Trattoria dall’ Amelia near Venice, the Hotel Savoy and Drei Tannen restaurant in San Martino di Castrozza and Gallia Hotels in Milan. Capra came to Toronto in 1982 and received accolades for his work as a chef at Prego della Piazza before opening Toronto’s famous Mistura Restaurant in 1997 and Sopra Upper Lounge in 2006.

He is, literally, a big name, having licensed his name to the Rainbow Room by Massimo Capra at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Niagara Falls, and he is chef and brand owner of Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto at Pearson Airport. He has written award-winning cookbooks. But he may be best known to many Canadians for his TV work on the Food Network as a judge on Chopped: Canada and Top Chef Canada and as an expert advisor on Restaurant Makeover.

I am fortunate to meet Massimo Capra in person at his restaurant, Capra’s Kitchen, which opened in 2016 in his home neighbourhood of Clarkson Village in Mississauga, Ont. The gregarious, warm and busy entrepreneur graciously sits in a booth at the back of his restaurant – as the relaxed, jazz-infused place steadily fills before the lunch hour – sharing his thoughts on what food should be.

Tell us about your time growing up in Italy and how it shaped your appreciation for food.
I grew up in rural Italy until I was five or six years old, then moved to a nearby town, Cremona, in the Po Valley in Northern Italy southeast of Milan, which has about 80,000 people. It was farmland with very few factories. The area used to grow wheat and corn and we used to have a massive dairy industry. Provolone, grana padana, gorgonzola – all of the cheeses we now take for granted are all from that area. My father used to work for a farm owner and he was quite successful. After the Second World War, he was in charge of a farm. He found his calling was to be with dairy cows and he tended a flock of dairy cows. He was very serious about it in terms of the feeding and all that. He was an old-fashioned guy – he was born in 1912 – but he was very modern in the way that he thought: he never really bought into the modernization of farming that has happened ever since. The farm he worked for was a relatively small farm but it was owned by someone who believed in organic and all of the beautiful words we use nowadays, including crop rotation for the animal feeds. Beautiful milk sold to local cheese makers and local co-operatives so they could make local cheese. My father was also an amazing gardener. He tended his own plot of land at our house and he grew almost everything. It was fantastic. My mother loved tending animals – chickens and rabbits, quails, geese, ducks and turkeys – you name it. Cremona itself is not well known for its food but the food is similar to what you find in Emilia-Romagna and Mantua – stuffed pasta, ravioli, lots of egg noodles, lots of rice. We’re very close to the rice lands of Italy. Also, beef, veal, pork, chickens, any type of birds and lots of wild meats. There was always somebody going hunting.

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Food was always very important but it’s not something you thought of very much because it was just a necessity. My mother grew up making her own bread, going out in the fields after the machine and collecting all the corn, gathering up all the corn and then giving it to the miller and he would prepare the flours for us. You barter for eggs – ‘I give you two dozen eggs every week and you give me the flour or the rice that I need.’ It was an enormous amount of work and we (children) were the lazy ones who went to school and picked jobs that took us away from the old town. I’m kind of sorry I didn’t stay along with my father learning how to farm, learning how to grow vegetables and fruits and how to tend a chicken coop like my mother did. She had a total passion for it. But those animals were also our lifeline to get things. If I needed a pair of pants, you bring a couple of chickens over and the rest you pay with a little bit of cash and that’s it. It was just the way of life.

You describe Capra’s Kitchen as a ‘fresh and approachable’ restaurant. In what ways is it so?
The place that we created here, it definitely does have a downtown feel. We are in the suburbs of Mississauga, which is amazing. It is a completely detached from Toronto, but in terms of food quality, there are a lot of beautiful ethnic restaurants and you can eat very, very well here. What I try to do, I try to stay true to my roots. I offer things that are actually relevant and make sense and are current.

My goal was to bring a restaurant here that was approachable, that was modern, that was family-style, that evoked a downtown feel and way of living. Given the demographic, which is changing rapidly, it’s also very inclusive. My menu is very, very large. I have a lot of items. You have to have pasta, pizza, antipasto, some main courses – so you’re up to 35 items, whether you like it or not. I want to try to get as much of the community that surrounds me as possible. This restaurant is geared to have a couple with their kid wanting to share a pizza or a pasta and have a glass of water, or a business-minded person, or a “foodie.” (Editor: He rolls his eyes at the last word.) We don’t take shortcuts in anything. We stuff our own ravioli and agnolotti, we make our own gnocchi and our potatoes are soft – the way they’re supposed to be. Everything is made fresh in house and because it’s an Italian restaurant, you can always ask for something different than what’s on the menu. We have all the ingredients. We have the ability to serve everyone: vegans, vegetarians and those who don’t eat pork. We are inclusive – and I think that’s a good restaurant. You can’t be too strict about your menu. My chef is instructed to come up with a vegan special every week. And by nature, Italian menus are very vegetarian-friendly. The cheese can be omitted; butter, we don’t use a lot. I want to offer a better choice. When you run a big restaurant and you want to have numbers, you have to offer a little bit of everything.

Capra’s Kitchen opened in 2016 in Massimo Capra’s home neighbourhood of Clarkson Village in Mississauga, Ont.

What does seasonal cooking mean to you?
I grew up in a time and a place where seasonality was the key. You couldn’t have certain things if it wasn’t the right time of year. When I was a kid I used to go out and look for frogs and little fish in the ditches, because we had irrigation systems. The ditches were full of fish, so you put a net down, grab whatever comes up and then you eat them fried. I collected my own snails: in every garden in my hometown there is a box made of cement with a net on top. When you pick up lettuce from your garden, you take a few leaves that are dirty, feed them, give them some corn – make them nice and plump, and then you eat snails. Once or twice a year you’d have a snailfest. Those are things that I do miss immensely.

You basically ate what the land gave you, and in season. That gives you a different sense of responsibility for living: it’s a totally different way of life and the flavours are completely different. Local, organic, in season – those are your guidelines. In the wintertime you use pulses, dried vegetables, root vegetables – there’s so much to work with. Be flexible. There is beautiful stuff out there.

To cook in a restaurant with local ingredients is a tall order, especially if you have a big place and you’re trying to feed the general public. You need to offer the public a little bit of what they want and a little bit of what you want to give them. People who want to learn something can learn; people who just want to eat, they come in to eat.

How and where do you find interesting, high-quality ingredients?
I go to farmers markets. Thirty years ago, I used to have to travel all the way to St. Jacobs (near Kitchener-Waterloo) for a big farmers market. Now they’re all over the place. The variety and the quality you find in a farmers market is very exciting. They tend to have a much more seasonal viewpoint and different varieties that are not just standard supermarket quality. It’s beautiful that in the grocery store, we can get vegetables from all over the world. But can you get the icicle radishes, can you get 16 varieties of radishes? That’s what’s exciting. Or cucumbers. You go to the supermarket now, what do you get? The mini six-in-a-package and the English – the other cucumbers have almost disappeared. When you go to a market, you might find it’s got the little tiny cornichons or it’s got the pickling cucumbers. You might find Hungarian white peppers, not just bell peppers. – your mind starts going. I’m looking for something different and the flavour is completely different.

What do you think of all the different pizza styles – such as Napoletana and Roman – that have become popular in Canada in recent years? Do you have a favourite you are experimenting with?
Pizza is an incredible food. You have so many different varieties: New York-style to Chicago-style, Detroit, Montreal does a style. With Roman-style, in the old days, my baker used to make pizza on Saturday. It was in a tray, about an inch thick, with anchovies, capers, olives, some cheese, and you used to buy it by the slice. Every town in Italy makes a pizza style that’s Roman-style. Obviously, now we are a little bit more specific and we have a few pizzerias in Rome that have developed the style. That is beautiful. I’ve eaten those since I was 14 years old going to cooking school. In Italy they’ve redefined Roman and I’m really glad they did that because it is absolutely delicious. It has a little bit more crispiness to it now and is a little bit more approachable.

I don’t want to overthink pizza. Pizza is street food that went crazy. It’s amazing the way that pizza has taken over this continent and everywhere around the world. Even in my hometown, there are four pizzerias with four different styles and they all do well.

I did experiment with Napoletana-style pizza. It’s very labour intensive. Unless you have a wood-burning oven and unless you make dough and ferment it for two days, it’s a big labour-intensive thing. I take my hat off to people who do that and go that route. When I was 18, I operated a pizza oven for seven months and I understand wood-burning ovens. To bring it up to 900 degrees is not the whole key of making good pizza. A pizza oven has a certain way of showing you when it’s ready to bake and you need to be really mindful of that. Otherwise, you’re going to get a piece that’s scorched and is not cooked in the middle. The cheese has to be almost melted but not melted: it’s got to be still visible. If the cheese starts boiling, it’s not good. I agree with all that, but that’s not conducive to my quick-serve style. It’s a bit too strict for me.

Tell us about your pizza.
My pizza is more like a standard pizza. I don’t care for the Napoletana-style pizza – too doughy, too wet. I’m going to be straightforward about it because I lived in Italy for 22 years and I lived in the Naples area for quite some time. In North America, we’ve been given the idea that Napoletana pizza is supposed to be wet inside. That’s not true. Napoletana-style is not supposed to be crispy – I agree with that. I find Napoletana-style pizza really heavy and I’ve gone with a much lighter, crisper pizza style. It’s only 65 to 70 per cent moisture in the dough.

Tell us about some of your staffing challenges and priorities.
Hiring is the top issue for restaurants – finding staff who actually want to stay. The reality is that there is a new mindset in the workers of today. They like to work somewhere for six months, then go (somewhere else) for six months, then move on, and they end up opening their own place. What we are lacking is people who want to develop a career doing something and doing it well – for someone else. It is very difficult to find people who will stay with you and actually develop their skills. There is no hierarchy – everyone wants to be the top. Nobody wants to spend time and learn. They think that once they know how to stretch 10 pizzas to 12 inches all the same, they know all they need to know. A lot of people working in the industry don’t spend time trying to understand the chemistry and learn the craft behind doing something right.

In many of your projects, you serve in the role of a teacher. Do you consider yourself a teacher?

I don’t consider myself a teacher. My chef does most of the training here but I am in the kitchen almost every day. I like to be in the kitchen. Every day I taste every single sauce, I check every single fridge. Some people are natural or born teachers – I take my hat off to them. Even as a kid, I could never write down a recipe. But I observed. I wrote down only the necessary things that I needed. If you sit me down in front of a book and recipe, I get lost – five seconds and I don’t know where I am. But if you show me how to do something, I guarantee you the next day I’ll make it, then I’ll make it again and make it again until I have it the way that you want it. That’s my big strength. I’ve always been the underdog everywhere. It’s a trait that really served me immensely. I am very visual. And then also there is the fact that I’m never satisfied. I want to know why.

For instance, we’ve been buying buttercup squash from a farm. The squash is fresh from the vine and very watery. We made a dish that required the squash to dry and floury and ours was full of water. My cooks assumed the squash was bad. But I said, why do you think the squash is bad? You don’t understand. There is chemistry. Squash is something that lasts for several months. You’ve got to keep it in a cold place and then the moisture will leave, the sugars will develop and it will become dry and sweet. Then you can do the recipe that you want to do. So, I bought more squash and they’re sitting in our cellar outside. As soon as it gets cold enough, they’re going to start bleeding out all of their water. I have to teach all of these things to our staff. We need people who are invested in understanding the chemistry of food.

What can an independent pizzeria operator do to thrive in a competitive market?
Independents have an advantage, in a sense, because they have only one or two locations and they can develop their own style. The style is something they have to invent themselves or learn it from somewhere, then stick with it and perfect it. Consistency is the key – in everything. The quality of the dough, the consistency of the cooking and the quality of the ingredients on top. After that, what you put on it depends on your style. Making pizza dough is the most difficult part, cooking the pizza is the next most difficult but the toppings are just a function of the ingredients.

Once you have developed a style that is actually successful, the clientele will let you know about it. Then you have to be consistent. You also have to be open to advice and listen to what the customers are telling you. A lot of restaurants fail because they are cooking for themselves and their knowledge is very limited. Pizza is not easy: it’s a very, very difficult thing to do. Consistency is the key but you have to know exactly what to be consistent on. A lot of small operators, they kind of lose touch. We’re not in business to please ourselves; we’re in business to please others – then we can be pleased. •