Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Food & Wine

Now that's really Italian

Since Nelly Capra's latest class series, "The Way We Cook in Italy," is taking place during the time of Italy's Carnivale celebration, she has included bugie, a traditional treat of Carnivale, as an option for her students to make.

These knotted cookies are deep-fried in oil and then smothered with powdered sugar. The cookies are called bugie, meaning "lies" in Italian, since the frying process makes the dough curl up into curious shapes. For the more healthfully inclined there is a thick vegetable, meatless minestrone soup and a lentil stew, among other simple but delicious items on the batch of recipes Capra hands out.

Contrary to the common perception of what Italian food looks like, at the end of the class when the dishes are presented, there is no tomato sauce in sight. This is due to Capra's emphasis on Genovese style cooking: a peasant cuisine from the central Italian region where she grew up that produces tortas and farinatas--thin, crisp garbanzo bean flour "pancakes" baked in a wood-burning oven that are then filled with a variety of seasonal vegetables.

"Genovese food is, of all the Italian foods, one of the least known here," she said.

Capra's passion for Genovese style cooking comes from the two food shops she acquired in her early 20s on the Ligurian Riviera. Both were long-established institutions that had been run by a local family, and Capra was trained in three months by the owner of the first shop she bought to make the traditional comfort food.

She also acquired a seafood restaurant but wound up selling all three businesses when she moved to Los Altos 11 years ago and married the man she had met 20 years previously when, as an American backpacker, he had walked into her restaurant looking for work. Although they both got married to other people and had children in the interim, they kept in contact and Capra visited Los Altos twice before deciding to settle here.

"The climate is kind of the same, and I like the fact that the vegetation is not too different. You find almonds, mimosa and all the lemons and oranges just like in the Riviera," Capra said, adding, "The food made sense here. To cook what I used to cook."

Upon arrival a friend suggested that she visit Oakville Groceries in the Stanford Shopping Center. "I went there with a business card and a torta," Capra recalls. The manager of the store liked the tortas and Capra started catering for him.

When he became the cooking school program director at Draeger's, she began teaching there.

About five years ago the owner of A.G. Ferrari proposed that she run the kitchens that distribute the food to his Italian specialty food shops. However, since her two children were young at the time and the job involved a lot of traveling, she turned the offer down.

Now she is considering the possibility of opening her own food shop in Los Altos, similar to the ones she had in Italy, with casual, freshly prepared food. "I see it as a place for lunch, not a huge place but with real Italian food."

She explained that in local Italian eateries she could tell native Italians had not prepared the food.

"I think there is a lot of knowledge behind it and a will to please people, but it's more Americanized. It's hard to find Italian chefs that work in the kitchen."

In addition, pasta and entr/es are often served on the same plate ("an absolute no in Italy"), and pasta is listed on the menu as an entr/e (another "no").

In time she hopes to combine her recipes and the food poetry that she writes into a book. There are also culinary tours in three different regions of Italy that Capra leads every summer for a couple of months, and the numerous catering jobs.

She works as a private chef for one Los Altos Hills family and is employed often to create food presentations for companies and Italian-themed team building workshops, not to mention the frequent requests for birthday party cooking lessons.

In October of last year, she catered a surprise birthday party for Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice at his home in Atherton.

"This helps me really to keep my homesickness under control," she says with a laugh. "Because I'm surrounded by people that talk about Italy, they've gone to Italy, they want to learn Italian food, they want to learn the language."

Capra said her favorite dishes are pastas because they are so versatile, and she also tries to add legumes whenever she can. "I'm not a vegetarian, but I find that vegetables give me a lot of satisfaction."

She also relishes experimenting, so when the mother of a friend of her's taught her how to make a potato torta served on fig leaves, "I died because I have a tree full of leaves and no figs!"

A Sicilian friend taught her a timpano recipe, which cultivated a lot of interest after the 1996 film "Big Night" featured as its star this gastronomic delight. However, Capra declared that her timpano, which she has been teaching her students to make ever since, is better. "It opened my eyes because I thought, 'Oh, this is what they think is Italian,' " Capra said of the film, which depicted a festive night in an Italian restaurant in 1950s New Jersey.

"In Italy everybody cooks. It's a day-to-day art," she said. "We don't call it the big night. It's just a regular night."

For information on Capra's catering, cooking and conversation classes, logon to www.ornellacucinaitaliana.com or call 964-4265. ââ€"Å 

Place all clean and cut vegetables in a big pot. Add coarse salt, cold water (4 cups or more), 1/4 cup olive oil and let cook for 45 minutes.

Mash part of the soup to make it creamy. Bring back to the boil, add 1 cup dry short pasta and let cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Just before serving, off the heat, add 4 - 5 tbsp of pesto and serve


- 1 lb lentils, rinsed

- 1/2 leg of celery, 1 small onion, 1/2 carrot, chopped

- 2 cloves of garlic, chopped

- 3-4 sage leaves, whole

- 1 cup pureed peeled tomatoes

- salt, pepper

- 3 tbsp olive oil

Place lentils in cold water and soak them for about one hour. Rinse

them again and cook them, starting with cold water and a little salt,

until almost done, about 15-20 minutes.

Saut/ in oil the chopped onion, celery, carrot and garlic (a few pieces of chopped pancetta or bacon can also be added at this point). Add the pur/ed tomatoes and sage leaves, salt and pepper. Cook for a few minutes then add the drained lentils and cook for 5 more minutes, using a little lentil water, if necessary.


(Knotted cookies)

- 1 lb of white all-purpose flour (3 cups)

- 3/4 cup sugar

- 1/3 cup of warm milk (approx.)

- 1 tbsp butter, melted

- 2 eggs + 1 yolk

- 1 tsp salt

- 1 tsp vanilla

- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder

- lemon zest, grated

- corn oil for frying

Mix flour (by hand or in mixer) with melted butter, sugar, milk,

vanilla, salt, lemon zest and eggs. Knead until smooth and elastic.

Divide into a few pieces and flatten them either with a rolling pin (in that case let the dough rest for 1/2 hour) or with a pasta machine.

Using the fluted wheel, cut into ribbons that can be long or short,

plain or knotted.

Fry ribbons in abundant hot corn oil until they become golden (a few

seconds). Place them on paper towels. When cold, arrange them on a

serving platter and sprinkle with powdered sugar.

This dough can be stuffed with jam or chocolate chips and shaped like ravioli, then fried like bugie.

Milk can be substituted with white wine in which case vanilla should be omitted.

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