BURRILLVILLE – With businesses and projects across the globe halted in hopes to stymie the spread of COVID 19, many people are doing what they can to share their talents and stay connected to their communities, and Bella Restaurant’s Executive Chef Gio Calapai is no exception.
Patrons at home who miss their favorite gourmet Italian dishes from the Victory Highway restaurant are in for a treat this month.
Calapai is now hosting weekly online recipe tutorials, teaching Bella fans how to make some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes with ingredients found in most homes – even when access to supermarkets can be limited.
“We understand it’s tough times,” Calapai said during one filming of his new series, “Casa Della Calapai,” this week.
The restaurant, a go-to spot in northern Rhode Island for authentic Italian cuisine for some 22 years, closed its doors in mid-March after Gov. Gina Raimondo mandated a temporary halt to dine-in services. Members of the Calapai family say they decided to close rather than offer take-out because they felt it was best to keep everyone as safe as possible.
“We miss the restaurant. We really do,” Calapai said. “We go there twice a day.”
Amid uncertainty about the future of the business and when it will be allowed to reopen, the chef has decided to offer what he can to help others during an undeniably stressful time.
“We don’t know how long we’re going to be out of work,” Calapai said. “It’s a strange feeling. This time off is bittersweet. I get to see my kids and spend time with the loved ones, and it’s great, but the not knowing, I think, is killing everybody.”
Calapai’s first tutorials – covering the restaurant’s popular Chicken Piccata and Penne ala Vodka recipes – have been viewed thousands of times. In the roughly ten-minute long videos, the chef creates the recipe in his father’s home kitchen, providing cooking tips along the way.
“This is a dish that’s easy to make at home,” Callapai said, while whipping up a family meal. “Kids loves this dish.”
While Bella specializes in detailed, innovative appetizers and entrees with a Sicilian influence, Calapai’s tutorials have focused on easy recipes made with ingredients found in most kitchens, and include suggested adaptations depending on what viewers might have in their cupboards.
“There’s a million different things you can do with this,” the chef said this week, while a lemon juice, butter, and caper sauce sizzled in the background. “It’s about utilization of everything you have right now. No one wants to waste money.”
“I know it’s getting more difficult to go out to the store and people are scared,” he added. “That’s why you have to go through the fridge and use the leftovers.”
Calapai’s father, Giuseppe Calapai, was born in in Messina, Italy and his son Gio, worked in the hometown family restaurant at a very young age. Giuseppe opened his first restaurant in the United States in Providence’s Federal Hill the early 1980s, and the young future chef Gio gained a passion for great food growing up in the kitchen of The Blue Grotto.
At 18, Gio left home and studied abroad for a year at restaurants owned by his father’s cousins in northern and southern Italy.
It was during a stint staying with his grandparents in Sicily and picking up tips from his “Nonna,” where he reportedly created his famous Gio’s Trio Marinara Sauce, now sold in markets throughout Rhode Island.
When he returned home, Chef Gio began working in the kitchen of the Burrillville restaurant, and soon after, he became Bella’s executive chef.
“Gio is self taught and is always creating new flavors,” noted Giuseppe wife, Tracy Calapai.
If you aren’t among the hundreds of diners from across New England who have since enjoyed Bella’s blend of hospitality and fine cooking, their faithful clientele will be glad to tell you: they serve truly great food. Fans watching the live tutorials this week thanked the chef for sharing his recipes commenting, “He is certainly number one in the kitchen,” and, “Wow, that looks delicious.”
“He has never shared recipes like this before,” Tracy said, noting that the restaurant does offer a monthly, “Chef’s Dinner,” a ticketed event also available for private gatherings and business dinners. “We are encouraging people to suggest recipes.”
For the new endeavor, Chef Gio is taking requests and questions from fans, and has offered to help with things such as how to create a great Easter dinner
The Calapais have made the tutorials something of a family affair, with Tracy filming the videos. Giuseppe’s other son, Filippo, was recently activated in the National Guard, but home during one tutorial this week, he monitored comments on the live feed. Senior can be seen in the background with a glass of red wine, ready to enjoy the final product.
“I haven’t lost my touch,” the chef noted this week while transferring a finished meal onto plates for the group. “Another lucky day in the office.”
The tutorials have allowed the family a way to stay connected, and to share the chef’s talents while both entertaining and helping others.
“Hopefully we’ll be back to work soon, like everyone else,” Calapai said. “We’re all in this together. We really are.”
“Our customers – we miss them,” he added. “This is the best we can do right now.”
Editor’s note: When the restaurant is open, writer and publisher Sandy Seoane works as a server on Saturday nights.