PETER CONRADI/Bullet News
Massimo Capra chuckles as he recalls, growing up on a farm in northern Italy, never having been exposed to fast food. No French fries. No McNuggets. No milk shakes. Rather strange when you think about it. Then again, how could it be otherwise, surrounded by the freshest of fruits and vegetables, livestock, and cheeses?
“I’m a lucky boy. Until I was 15, all I ever ate was something that my mother or my father or one of my neighbours grew or raised or farmed or whatever. I had no junk food in me. It was actually a special treat on Fridays when the fishmonger would come by with a box of frozen fish sticks, and that was like once a month if we had the money to buy them. Oh, they were so good.”
Not a lot has changed over the years. To be sure, Capra is now acquainted with the North American delicacies served up by McDonald’s, Wendy’s and their contemporaries (“I love it! It makes you fat, but it has everything in it that we love to eat.”), but even his idea of quick cuisine is vastly removed from that which comes through your typical drive-through window.
Sundays are junk nights in Capra’s Toronto household, and we’re not talking a trip to Taco Bell or even the pizza place down the street.
“We buy good tortillas and avocados and make salsa or chili. We might make a stew or a quick pasta and salad depending on the time of the year. That’s our junk food.”
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Capra laughs out loud. He does that a lot. Flamboyant and gregarious, he’s at home in the spotlight. And on this chilly evening he is on top of the world, literally and figuratively. Capra stands off in a corner of the Rainbow Room – his Rainbow Room, now – activity and aroma whirl and drift all around him. Scallop hors d’oeuvres sizzle in sauté pans only metres away, the din in the crowded restaurant rises and falls as hungry people mill and chat and sip champagne and wait to be fed by one of Canada’s preeminent celebrity chefs.
It’s been three years since Capra moved into the famed venue atop the Crowne Plaza with its spectacular view of the two falls, the Niagara River, and the city’s skyline. The DiCienzo family, owners of this and several other Niagara Falls hotels, decided they wanted to do something different with the culinary experience offered to both tourists and locals. They turned to Capra to make it happen.
“I’m very happy with how it’s gone,” says Capra, who is celebrated his anniversary in Niagara Falls last Friday with a packed house of about 100 guests. “It’s worked out very well. We have a chef in this kitchen who is absolutely fantastic. He is able to understand the vision and the Italian influence on the food and maintain a very high standard.”
What is now The Rainbow Room by Massimo Capra opened in 1929. It has hosted notable guests that run the gamut from royalty to Hollywood. King George VI and the King and Queen of Nepal dined here; so too have the Jonas Brothers, Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry. The history is not lost on Capra, but to him there is nothing more important than the food.
“The mandate we had was to elevate the culinary aspect of this room, and it was a natural to become part of it. This is a grand space. This is the most original of all of the places in all of Niagara Falls. It’s legendary. It’s historic, and now I am part of that.
“But it’s the food, creating a first-rate dining experience, that is what brought me here. The beauty of this area, you can’t deny. It’s so romantic. In the restaurant we incorporate as much local and freshness as possible with a twist of Italian, naturally. If I am going to be here that is how it will be. The menu is very to the point with lots of local and seasonal touches, and it has my fingerprints all over it.”
Capra raves about the talents of John Casciato, who looks after the regular operations. Capra describes himself as very involved with the restaurant, but his wide and varied interests do not permit daily participation.
“I do get here a lot. I come in the mornings and leave by the evenings. I have friends in Niagara and that brings me back. Tonight they want me out here (talking to guests), but many nights I have been here making the pasta or doing the risotto or taking care of little details. This kitchen is very, very good. It’s one of the tightest groups I have ever worked with.”
Capra, 52, is a cooking industry unto himself. He runs the popular Mistura and Sopra restaurants on Davenport Road in Toronto, and just recently opened Boccone Trattoria Veloce in two locations at Pearson Airport. He’s a restaurant consultant and is recognizable for his appearances on CityLine, and the Restaurant Makeover on the Food Network, which is viewed in 16 countries. It’s a busy life.
“There is no denial when I was younger I wanted to be in the kitchen and just cook, and leave me alone. But now I am of a certain age and the kitchen is the game for young people. I do the organizing, but I let them to do the work.”
These days Capra tries to spend most mornings at the airport. Afternoons and evenings are at Mistura, working in TV appearances and tapings around that.
“I work six days a week usually. Afternoons and nights are usually in a kitchen. Mistura is my baby, the airport is my passion and the Rainbow Room has become my mistress.”
He pauses and glances at wife Rosa, who has joined the conversation. He laughs again.
“It is … I know I want to look after it, and always make sure everything is fine.”
Click here for more information on the Rainbow Room by Massimo Capra.