Massimo Capra, Co-owner, Mistura, Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto

Renaissance Restaurateur
By Steven Chester
Massimo Capra, Co-owner, Mistura, Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto

Despite his many successes as a celebrity chef, cookbook author, and restaurant owner, Massimo Capra still feels the pull from the shy, young farm boy from Cremona, Italy he once was.

Cooking school was his choice for escaping small-town life, where his father ran a dairy operation. After finishing primary school, Capra was off to a three-year course in the hopes of landing a job in a kitchen. As part of his schooling, Capra was placed in several hotels and restaurants where he learned his craft hands-on.

His first real taste of back-of-house brio was in Courmayeur, at Val d’Aosta, a luxury hotel near Mont Blanc. The 15-year-old boy was too shy to approach tables and was weak-kneed at the surroundings of the upper class clientele.

“The first night, the chef put me on a carving station outside in the dining room,” says Capra. “I was put outside with a giant roasted grouper and had to wheel it out with my hat, scarf, all my tools perfectly clean, the whole bit, and I had the maitre d’ and all the captains waiting with plates. I had to carve the fish and remove the skin, head, hide and do the show, and I’m serving the prime minister and the president of Italy! I was frozen. I was so shy. I didn’t want to be with people!

Iconic presence

It’s hard to imagine the younger Capra today, now the celebrated, handlebar-moustachioed chef whose charming wit has been a big part of his 15-year reign on daytime lifestyle show CityLine and as a popular host of Food Network’s Restaurant Makeover. He is also co-owner of the renowned Mistura Restaurant in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood and the recently-launched Boccone Trattoria Veloce and Boccone Pronto, which are part of a food renaissance at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Capra has also licensed his naming rights to The Rainbow Room at the Crowne Plaza Niagara Falls-Fallsview Hotel.

Following stints in several upscale hotels throughout Italy, and also military service, a distant relative invited Capra to work at the now-defunct Archer’s restaurant in Toronto. Beginning in 1982, Capra spent about seven years there, getting acclimatized to Canada while learning English.

With Archer’s owner pondering retirement, Capra had to move on. In 1989, he met Michael Carlevale, who had just purchased Prego Della Piazza.

“When I went to see it, it was a fledgling restaurant. It was really 20 dinners, 20 lunches, a bunch of drunks at the bar – really nothing to speak of,” Capra says with a laugh. “But Michael had big ideas, and he followed through with everything he said. To me, it was like going to university. That restaurant, within six months of stability in the kitchen, with me at the head and a great management team in the front, became a place that I like to say is legendary in Toronto.”

Catering to the stars

Prego Della Piazza became a hit among the city’s well-to-do, from politicians to Hollywood actors attending the Toronto International Film Festival. Hobnobbing with such notorious clientele provokes a flood of memories – from a respite with Paris Hilton in the staff room to the elation of Kris Kristofferson after repairing his damaged sunglasses. Though the exposure was great, the six-day week working double shifts was hard on Capra and his young family.

In 1997, the opportunity landed to team up with Paolo Paolini, who had just opened up a restaurant nearby and was looking for a chef and partner. Both with young families, the duo decided to include family time in their busy schedules, and a deal was made. Mistura Restaurant was born. An upper lounge, Sopra, was also part of the equation but now is used exclusively for large bookings and events.

A rustic-themed restaurant with an elegant, Italian cuisine, Mistura opened to rave reviews and is going strong after 16 years.

“You have to find what your comfort zone is,” Capra says. “If you feel that something will work, you have to believe it and you have to make sure that you do your homework, always. You can’t just dive into a business – especially a restaurant business – just because you have a good idea or you make good meatballs at home. At the end of the day, it is a business and you have to consider it a business.”

Simply Italian

Of his food philosophy, Capra says he likes to keep things simple. “I like food for what it is. I don’t need the complication of extra garnishes or sauces or things that don’t provide anything but a distraction to the main dish. My flavour profile (at Mistura) is pure Italian.”

Capra’s most recent ventures consist of two locations at Toronto’s international airport: Boccone Trattoria Veloce, a 2,287-square-foot, full-service restaurant; and Boccone Pronto, the restaurant’s quick-service cousin in another area of the airport.

Energy to spare

Asked what ignites his initiative-fuelled energy, Capra jokes, “I don’t know. I guess I’m heavily ADD. HD-ADD! I’m really high-definition with this disorder. I love getting up in the morning and doing things. I guess it’s like a drug. This industry is really exciting.”

Capra notes that public speaking has been a challenge, despite the fact that appearances are more often becoming the norm. His iconic visage makes him easy to spot in public, though the inner 15-year-old still often feels those nervous bristles.

“The moustache is from 1996. It’s a distraction; most people love it. When I retire, I’m going to shave it off and grow my hair back,” he says with a conspiratorial chuckle. “Nobody will know who I am!”


About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 13-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

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