Written by: Lynn Ogryzlo
Photographed by: AJ Harlond

One bite of celebrity chef Massimo Capra’s cuisine and your senses will be ignited. The boy who grew up in the northern province of Cremona, Italy began cooking the dishes of his small town region at his mothers side when he 15 years old. Massimo has never given up the family traditions for his new world. Instead, he’s influenced his new world with his style of cuisine.

Capra’s culinary foundation didn’t come from the clinical kitchens of a culinary school, instead “my dad was a farmhand. He milked cows – by hand, the old way,” says Massimo with pride. He laughs at the organic, natural and biodynamic movement today explaining, “We did it then. We farmed by the moon, stars, calendar.” He licks his finger and holds it in the air, “by way of the wind. Today it’s the same as we did it, just different words.”

In the Capra household there was always plenty of fresh, unpasteurized milk. “We made our own butter and ricotta. On Sundays we had whipped cream.” Massimo’s culinary foundation is based on the philosophy that it takes as much time and attention to nurture a tiny seedling into a fully mature plant as it does to stir a pot of ingredients into a delicious soup. Ingredients were important, where they came from and how fresh they were. Cooking was equally important, simplicity and authenticity of flavours. “Food has to taste the way it is. If I’m going to have a steak, it better taste like a really good steak.”

After culinary training at the Professionale Albergo di Stato (hospitality school of the state), Massimo worked at high end resorts along the Italian coastline. Then one day he was offered the job of running his cousins restaurant in Toronto. Not speaking a word of English, Massimo arrived in 1982 and began working at Archers Restaurant on St. Clair Avenue.

While English came easy to Massimo, understanding the North American culinary ways was bewildering. He went from massive corporate kitchens to Archers postage stamp sized kitchen. “Restaurant owners in Toronto cared more about the number of seats in a restaurant than the infrastructure on how efficiently the restaurant would work.”

When Massimo arrived in Toronto he found Italian cuisine influenced by the south not the north where he was from. There was lots of heavy pasta dishes loaded with ragout sauce and thick pizzas; minestrone soup too acidic to eat; risottos were made with Uncle Ben’s rice and; an overuse of garlic.

When he arrived in the late 1980’s, Italian restaurants in Toronto were serving dishes that went off the menus in Italy in the 1960’s. Toronto was virgin territory for all things Italian; real Italian ingredients hadn’t reached Canadian shores yet, chefs did not travel and chefs in general did not seem to have real Italian culinary knowledge.

There was pressure for Massimo to adapt to the North American ways but for Massimo, there was no compromising in a country he felt was too young to understand. So he set out to cook his way, the only way he knew. “Everything I did was made fresh to order,” Massimo was used to Northern Italian cuisine; luscious risottos made with Italian Arborio rice and slow braised meats. He introduced new foods like a holiday stuffed goose. It was just like his mom made from the ducks in the yard, “it was a thing of beauty. At home, if you raised it, you ate it.” It was then he introduced fresh pasta to the menu, “wow, people went crazy for it.”

Massimo credits Mario Batali for doing a lot for Italian cuisine in North America. He bridged the gap between Italian cuisine and North America. “In Italy, they either loved what he’s done to Italian food in North America or they hate it, but I think he did a great job.”

Not long after arriving in Toronto, Massimo met Rosa. Born in Toulouse, France from Italian parents from Veneto, Rosa describes the first time she saw Massimo. “Those big round eyes, rosy cheeks and lambskin coat, he was a cute as a button.” Hairdresser by trade, Rosa laughs, “I used to cut his hair. That was back in the days when he had hair.”

Confidant, lover and source of inspiration, Rosa has always been by Massimo’s side as a sounding board, “I tell him what he’s thinking when he doesn’t want to think it.” I asked Rosa what she loves Massimo to cook for her and she describes deep fried artichoke hearts as “crispy on the outside, soft and buttery in the centre.” Then she thinks of another dish, then another. “Do I have to pick just one? Like our friendship and love, it always changes.”

Massimo left Archers for Prego de la Piazza in trendy Yorkville, where he was positioned well to cook for the rich and famous. In the mid 1990’s during the Toronto Film Festival, Massimo recreated the sensational dinner from the popular movie, The Big Night. Leading actors Stanley Tucci (Secondo) and Tony Shalhoub (Primo) attended and the event was filmed by Entertainment Tonight. “I even made the timpani,” boasts Massimo of the elaborate stuffed pasta dish baked in the shape of a large drum.

Actor Tom Cruise is a fan of Massimo’s cuisine. One evening when Prego de la Piazza was closed for renovations, actors Tom Cruise and Nichole Kidman walked in. Tom said, “ I’ll sit anywhere as long as Massimo makes me a plate of pasta.” He was referring to his favourite Spaghetti Vongole (pasta with clams).

Life was busy, “life was good,” says Massimo. Massimo’s on-screen career began in 1989 with an infomercial for a new line of cookware. Breakfast TV followed and he worked with Dave Nichols of Presidents Choice on products. In the midst of all this, he grew his signature handlebar moustache. He auditioned for City Line in 2000 and what followed was a decade of producers, writers, tv shows and recipes and yet he claims: “I still get butterflies when I walk in front of a group.”

You’ve seen Massimo on Restaurant Makeover, Top Chef Canada, Beer Buddies, Cucina Etc, Moveable Feast, Buddies of the Vine, Christine Cushing Live and perhaps every culinary show in Toronto in the past 3 decades. His latest show Gourmet Escape has him travelling around the world and when he’s not travelling, you can catch him on City Line as one of their In-House Chefs. He is the Food Editor for Canadian Home Trends Magazine and has authored two cookbooks, One-Pot Italian and Three Chefs, the kitchen men.

The opportunity came for Massimo to open his own restaurant, Mistura on Davenport. It now has a private, upstairs dining lounge called Sopra. Then came Fraticelli’s Italian Grill and The Rainbow Room by Massimo Capra (inside the Crown Plaza Hotel, Niagara Falls) and Boccone Trattoria (Pearson International Airport) and Boccone Pronto (Pearson Internaitonal Airport, Terminal 1).

Like families with a cottage to escape the daily grind, so Massimo thinks of The Rainbow Room in Niagara Falls the same way. “I love Niagara. I come down in the summer and eat peaches by the basketfuls!” So when Massimo set his sights on Niagara, he picked the most beautiful spot of all – right in front of Niagara Falls.

“My career has been about making a lot of friends in the right places. Without the right friends, I’m nothing,” says the boy who brought his culinary craft and uncompromising beliefs to Toronto and overjoyed a city with authentic Italian cuisine.

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com