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Episode #160: Delicious dishes from Capri

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The beautiful island of Capri might be small, but it has its own, unique identity and cuisine, which the islanders are intensely proud of. A culture with a deep connection to its environment – of fertile land surrounded by the sea and food that is always in step with the seasons. The way people on the island live day-to-day is in stark contrast to the rushed time that the many day-trippers get to spend there. 

capri tour

Show notes
In this episode, we are joined by Holly from Giardino di Capri cooking school and who shares some of the wonderful dishes you can try on a visit to Capri. Holly lives on the island with her husband Gianluca and their children – listen to Episode 42 to hear the romantic story of how she ended up living there.  They run their cooking school from their villa garden where they grow most of the produce they cook with – with an emphasis on sustainability and lack of waste, which has always been an important concept in Italian cooking culture. We talk famous Caprese dishes and how not to do them (we’re looking at you balsamic vinegar), all things lemon, and pizza spaghetti (yes this really is a thing!).

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Former Australian corporate lawyer Holly owes meeting her husband Gianluca and now living on Capri with her family, to the island’s food – having met Gianluca in his restaurant and bonded over food (see Episode #42 Come away to Capri for more details on that romantic story)
  2. Gianluca is Caprese born and bred and has lived on the island his whole life. His grandparents were originally involved in agriculture and fishing, as were most of the island prior to the influx of tourism. Gianluca’s father was a fisherman and a carpenter. However, when tourism started to rise to be the main source of income on the island in the 60s and 70s, there was a huge demand for chefs and people to work in hospitality, so like many others, Gianluca’s father re-trained and became a chef. He then worked at restaurants at the beach clubs in Marina Piccolo, where the family lived and Gianluca grew up
  3. Gianluca’s brother followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a chef and a fisherman and his cousins also followed the pathway into hospitality. Gianluca however, took a different path and began an electronic business, which he ran on the island for 20 years. It was his father’s passing that led him to change direction and enter the restaurant world. He opened Michel’angelo with his brother, in memory of his father Michele. “Michel’angelo” translates to “Michele, who is now with the angels”. They hoped the restaurant would keep his father’s legacy alive by sharing their family recipes and their island hospitality with the world
  4. When Holly walked through the door in 2013 for an evening meal, she had no idea of that backstory, but when she asked for a table for one, Gianluca said that he immediately got a feeling that his father had sent her
  5. Even though they did not speak each other’s language, they managed to communicate, not least through sharing food, and were married in 2014, now raising their family immersed in Caprese food culture
  6. Holly always loved food but rarely cooked. Her fast-paced corporate life in the city meant she dined out a lot with colleagues, clients, as well as family, and friends. She could prepare a mean cheeseboard and had many a toasted sandwich in her repertoire, but her signature spaghetti bolognese made her cringe when she moved to Capri and saw how Gianluca makes fresh pasta tagliatelli with his incredible bolognese. She now realizes that in the past she had not placed enough emphasis on her food sources or the connection of food to her health and vitality. It was unimaginable prior to meeting Gianluca, that her life could take such a turn and that food would become the center of it
  7. In Italy in general, food is central to everything – daily life, family, festivals, and celebrations. Food should evoke all the senses, be an experience – all-encompassing. You remember the aroma, the taste, and the texture of a great meal – it’s all a part of your experience. If you’re coming to a vacation destination in particular, you want to savor those memories. Food has that ability to take you back to those times when you were sitting at a table by the sea, eating a spaghetti alle vongole
  8. Gianluca closed Michel’angelo restaurant a few years ago and they have now opened a food experience business Giardino di Capri/ in their own garden villa in Anacapri. There they hold cooking classes, degustation meals, cheese, wine, and extra virgin olive oil tastings as well as gelato and sorbet workshops
  9. Having moved towards more boutique offerings has led to them growing more of their own food. Growing things by the seed has been an amazing part of their food journey. It is so rewarding to eat produce that you’ve planted, cared for, grown, and harvested yourself. Things that they grow in their garden are unquestionably on another level on the taste spectrum, but the experiences involved in the growing is an important part too – involving the children, the sustainability and finally sharing the beautiful bounty with friends, family, and visitors
  10. Right now, Gianluca and the gardener are planning what they’re going to plant for the coming year. He’s getting their little greenhouse ready for the basil seeds. The fava beans and peas are already in the ground to be ready for Pasqua (Easter)
  11. The food on Capri, as with the cuisine in Italy generally, is seasonal. You use what you have that’s abundant at the time. So in winter, they’re eating things like pasta with spinach and broccoli (straight from the garden). They’re not eating fresh tomato pasta right now but they bottle up and preserve their tomatoes so they get to enjoy them year-round. They also sell and ship them on their online shop
  12. At the moment they are enjoying broccoli, spinach, fennel and onions. In spring, they will have fava beans, peas, lettuce, zucchini and zucchini flowers. In summer, it’s time for those delicious, sweet yet rich tomatoes (that the volcanic soil nourishes), eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, melons and chilies. In Autumn they’ve then got pumpkins. So a dish for every season
  13. Parmigiana Melanzane (eggplant) is a famous dish in Capri in the Summer. However, in the Fall, they make Parmigiana de zucca, (with pumpkin), in winter, they do it with carciofo (artichokes) and then in Spring, they do it with zucchini. One dish that can be had in all four seasons
  14. Maria Pasquale, who wrote the book How to be Italian, describes it that “Italians have a deep love affair with food”. Holly gets a little nervous talking about food, not being Italian, despite being over ten years into her Capri food journey. She has sat down in the piazza with Gianluca and some of his friends listening to full-on, heated, hand-waving debates about how a recipe must be cooked. It is passion and to be taken seriously
  15. From the moment they wake up, Gianluca is already planning what they will be eating for lunch and dinner. If there’s a celebration on the weekend, the preparation is happening during the week. He uses his family recipes that are passed down through the generations, but especially because they grow their own food, you need to have a bit of flexibility because you’re using what you have in abundance at any particular time. So Gianluca will create a lot of different dishes using whatever they have or preserve in different ways. For instance, they have an abundance of citrus right now – grapefruit, oranges and, of course, lemons – so they’re making delicious sorbets
  16. Cucina povera, translated means poor food – an important concept, especially in the South of Italy. This is basically using all parts of your food to make dishes and not waste anything. Caprese caponata uses friselle, which back in the day was stale bread, and so was a way of using bread that had gone past its freshness but keeping it tasty
  17. There’s a lot of food wastage in the modern world and it’s something historically the cooking in Italy, and many other cultures, avoid. It’s worth a bit more planning, flexibility, and creativity to avoid throwing food out. No one can be perfect but it’s good to try being more mindful. If you have to throw food out, consider composting and using that to help grow lovely things in your garden or window box (or even someone else’s/a community garden)
  18. On the menu of a good Caprese restaurant, you’re not going to find traditional Roman dishes such as carbonara or cacio e pepe. You’re not going to find other dishes that specifically are connected to another region of Italy. You will find the local dishes designed with the wonderful local produce in mind

Caprese Dishes

Capri is small – at just over 10 square kilometers but it has created a big name for itself in some of its more internationally renowned dishes. Caprese means ‘from Capri’ and you will see this in many a famous dish – the 3 main being Insalata Caprese, which is antipasti, Ravioli Caprese, the famous pasta (primi piatti), and the dessert Torta Caprese. These 3 dishes form part of their most popular cooking class menu called the Capri Master Class. These dishes are still integrally involved in life on the island.

Insalata Caprese

This dish personifies summer on a plate. It has only five ingredients: tomato, basil, mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. There are optional ingredients too – for example, a sprinkle of dried oregano or presenting on a bed of rocket/arugula. But never balsamic vinegar. So be warned – if you come to Capri and ask for balsamic vinegar, depending upon your waiter – they might refuse to bring you any at all! Though it might be commonly added in Australia, America, and the UK – balsamic has never been a part of Insalata Caprese. The first reason is simply that it is not from the region. Secondly, it has a very strong flavor, so it overpowers and would become the victor of the dish, which it should not be –  on top of the other delicious, fresh, Southern ingredients. In the south, they have olive trees and olive oil is very much part of Capri culture. A drizzle of a good extra virgin olive oil on a salad is everything. Unlike many places outside of Italy, ready-made salad dressings are not much of a thing there. It’s just extra virgin olive oil and a pinch of salt. 

Note – Insalata Caprese is never a side dish, it’s always a dish on its own.

A tale of two cheese

Originally, the mozzarella that was served with Insalata Caprese was Fior de latte, which is cow’s milk mozzarella. However, with the trend towards the ever more popular buffalo mozzarella, you’ll often find it served with the buffalo mozzarella. Sometimes restaurants might have it both ways and you can choose which you’d prefer.

Ravioli Caprese

This is the island’s pasta dish. It’s something they eat all year round because if they’re not using fresh tomatoes, they’re using the bottled tomatoes. It’s also a very special Sunday family lunch dish. Holly likes to say it’s an easy dish, though while she doesn’t actually make it herself, she’s seen the chefs in her family make it tens of thousands of times! It’s a fresh pasta without eggs and as it’s a summer dish and the filling is quite heavy, the pasta is lighter – just flour, water, salt, and a little bit of olive oil for your pasta.

It’s the filling and the sauce that really makes it Caprese – Caciotta cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano, egg, and the wild herb that is grown on the island – Marjoram. Then the sauce is just 4 ingredients – tomatoes, olive oil, onion, and basil.

The ravioli is always round – never square!! At the cooking school, they do a lot of virtual cooking classes, and always say to people, you don’t need to buy new equipment to be able to cook the dishes – you can always substitute with something you’ve got. When Gianluca first went to Australia, he made Ravioli Caprese for Holly’s family. They, of course, didn’t have a ravioli cutter, so he simply cut them with a highball glass and used fork to make the little pattern around the outside. 

Torta Caprese

This Caprese classic has only five ingredients for the chocolate version – sugar, almond butter, chocolate, and eggs. This dish is a huge crowd-pleaser. It also makes the best dinner party cake because you make it the day before, and it actually gets better the next day. It crusts on the outside and stays beautifully moist on the inside. So you don’t need to worry about dessert before your guests come over.

It lasts a long time and also travels well. In their cooking class, they often pack up the extra of what has been made in the cooking class so guests can keep eating it for a couple of days after. It actually gets better by day three or four. It is a very versatile cake – you can have this cake for breakfast with a cappuccino or in the evening with a glass of Taurasi (local red wine). 

Back in Australia, the day before Holly was due to go to the hospital to have their baby – while she was stressed, packing her hospital bag and checking things off her list, she started smelling delicious things coming from the kitchen. She walked in to discover Gianluca had made three Torta Caprese. When she asked him why, he told her that one was for the doctor, one for the nurses, and the other for the family when the baby safely arrives! Proof indeed of how food is so central to Italians – this is how Gianluca expresses himself. Needless to say, the hospital staff loved him!

The land of lemons

Lemons can be found in not only sweet but in a lot of savory plates, as well as in many drinks. When they start zesting lemon in the cooking classes, the scent immediately hits – powerful, fragrant, delicious. Pasta wise there is Fettucine al limone, risotto al limone and seafood pastas. In the restaurant, they had a very famous dish called Linguine Marina Piccola, which was a lemon-based sauce with fresh seafood.

For desserts, there is the Torta Caprese al Limone, so the lemon version of the chocolate and almond cake, Delizia al Limone, and a whole range of desserts that have lemon in them celebrating the smell, taste, and the island vibrancy that runs through with the lemons in summer.

Then of course there is the limoncello. Limoncello is the well-known digestive of the island and the Amalfi Coast and it is an ingredient in a lot of desserts, including limoncello tiramisu.

There are also many different drinks, sorbets and granitas, and gelatos that celebrate lemons. Particularly refreshing on a hot day or after a meal. 

Seafood

Capri is obviously an island, so even pre-tourism, the food eaten there was made up of the vegetables they grew and what they caught in the surrounding sea. Scialatielli is the famous homemade pasta you’ll find on restaurant menus and is generally served with mixed seafood – clams, mussels, etc. Other dishes include Risotto alla Pescatora (fish risotto), the Linguine Marina Piccola, octopus salads, Insalata de Mari (seafood salad). You have sauteed mussels and clams, spaghetti alle vongole is a summer favorite, especially down at the beach as something light enough that you can enjoy and then take a dip in the sea afterwards.

The fish Pezzogna is a local delicacy and is hand reeled from the waters between Ischia and Capri, and also going down towards the Amalfi Coast. This is generally cooked in two ways, one is it’s called Aqua Pazza, which means literally ‘crazy water’, which is a very simple sauce –  literally just olive oil, prezzemolo (parsley) tomatoes, and a little bit of the water. The other way is that it is baked in salt.

In Capri, (and in other places along the Amalfi Coast) when you order fish, it’s often by weight. It can confuse people who are not used to this,  but they will generally show you the fish and then weigh it, and then it’s usually priced at a per 100 grams price. So be mindful of this when you’re ordering to keep an eye on the price.  Local types of fresh fish that you’ll find on menus are going to be spigola, orata and scorfano. 

Very typical of Capri is the local squid and it’s called Totani which is delicious. It has a different/more distinct and stronger flavor than squid you might normally be used. They will usually do it ripieni, which means filled, stuffed, and baked – with a delicious filling of cheeses and/or potato with various other ingredients. The other way is Totani e patate, which is fried potatoes and onions – it tastes so good! 

You’re on island time

Up to 90% of the visitors that come for the day to Capri spend under 4 hours on the island. Everyone has a different way of traveling and vacation time, however,  to really get a feel for the island, its culture, its traditions, and its cuisine, you do need to stay a little longer than a day trip. To get into island time, you need to spend time.

Venturing further

There is a real difference between Capri Town and Anacapri, – they have totally different vibes. Most people would only probably see Capri Town which is very chic, has got all the designer stores and the Piazzeta and is lovely, but those in the know often prefer Anacapri with its whitewashed buildings, beautiful flowers dripping down everywhere, with cute little piazzas. Capri Town and Anacapri are two totally different worlds. Anacapri has a more community feel and there are more families that live up there. On the island, there are 140 bustling restaurants in the summer season, but in the low season, most of those close. At some points, there may only be 4 or 5 restaurants open on the island, and most of them will be in Anacapri.

Holly has lived in different places on the island including in Capri Town for over 4 years – right in the center, every day walking through the Piazza back and forth from their house to the restaurant. It’s got a buzz and a great vibe, but she is now so happy in Anacapri, with their villa garden, hearing the birds chirping outside her door. It feels so far away from the 28,000 people that visit Capri per day in July and August.

Where you stay on the island or where you visit will really impact also your experience of the island. 

Home cooking in Capri

There are some dishes that you may not see on a restaurant menu, that are more casual, comfort-style food, more likely to be cooked at home. 

Pizza Spaghetti

Pizza spaghetti does not as the name might imply to non-Italians, involve pizza. The word pizza refers to anything that’s savory that you cut as a slice. You’ll boil the spaghetti but leave it very al dente because then you’re going to bake it in a pan. You mix it up with some cheeses, eggs, salami, and prosciutto – whatever you want or have left over. You then back it and it comes out like a pie you can slice up. 

You’d generally serve it cold. It’s easy to transport, so if you’re going down for a beach picnic or doing a hike, it’s perfect – it’s easy to eat and it keeps. 

Pizza Monacone

This dish is very close to Gianluca’s heart because this is a dish that his father worked on with the head chef to create. He was there when they created it, and he was well known in Capri for making the most delicious Pizza Monacone. Gianluca’s mother often makes this for Holly on a Sunday because she loves it. Again pizza refers to the slices. It is a pastry pie. When they first started teaching people to make this in their cooking class, Gianluca’s mother was horrified that they didn’t make the pastry ourselves. But making that is an exercise in itself, and takes a whole day, and they wanted people to make these dishes at home, so shop-bought puff pastry does the trick. Then you have the delicious filling. Fried mini meatballs and eggplant, tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil – which you top off with the pastry. It’s something you don’t serve piping hot – maybe wait to lukewarm or eat it cold too. You won’t likely find that on a restaurant menu, but they teach people how to make it or can come and request it from them if you’re coming to a degustation meal etc.

Caprese Caponata

This dish is different from a Sicilian Caponata. It is a cold salad with tomatoes, olives, maybe sott’olio (in oil) eggplant, the friselle bread that is now made specifically now for this dish, and then as Gianluca’s mum will say – whatever you have in the cupboard or fridge.

When they were testing recipes for the cookery school, Holly said to nonna, “okay, today we’re doing Capri Cabonata” and wrote down all the ingredients she used but then the next day they went to do it again all the ingredients had changed to Holly’s confusion. Nonna just said, “oh, Holly, you need to change the recipes, so when I put in olives, I mean black olives or maybe green olives. When I say tuna, it could be anchovies. When I say mozzarella one day, it could be provolone the next day”. Again following this wonderful tradition of using up every last bit of food in the house. 

Panini Caprese

A great option if you’re on the run – you can drop into the delicatessen and order a Caprese panini. This is actually part of the story of how the Insalata Caprese came about. It was initially served with bread and then someone ate it and said, “no, it doesn’t need the bread”. But with bread, it is also not only still delicious but easy to eat for a picnic or as take-out. 

Insalata di Riso Caprese style

A delicious cold rice salad – perfect for summer.

Pasta with chichierchie

They eat a lot of legumes on the island and an at-home dish they eat a lot is pasta with chichierchie (an ancient legume) and ceci (chickpeas),

The food can be great for the vegan, vegetarian, and food intolerant traveler because the food was based on the vegetables they grew there. It’s very simple food. Gluten-free is also something that’s very well understood, there is a whole range of different gluten-free options and things will generally be cooked at different stations. 

Consider Capri in the low season

Holly talked to us in episode 102 about Capri in the low season. In the hustle and bustle of summer, it is rare to be able to experience the real local life. In the winter season, they have time to socialize a lot more. Capri is a hospitable place, but you’re more likely to be having long chats with locals, whether you’re dining out or even asking for directions in the low season because they just have more time. 

The nature is the island is particularly amazing in all seasons – it’s different colors, different smells, different blooming flowers, and different produce. You can visit Capri over and over again and still discover new things. Holly still does and she’s been there 10 years.

Get booking

As we’ve been saying in recent podcasts, bookings in Italy are going crazy this year. If you’re coming to Capri this year, do get on to your bookings ASAP or they might get sold out.

As things opened up, post Covid things got busy and last year was extremely busy. Much of the island wasn’t prepared. It was only in April and May that when international travel really got the go-ahead, many people had moved out of hospitality and the influx was huger than expected. 

For 2023, they’re finding that already, in January, they are almost fully booked for May and June and have been receiving reservations right up until October. Do remember that it is a small island, only 10 square kilometers, and a lot of people visit, so there’s only so much space/availability. If you have bucket list items, especially for unique/different activities that you really want to experience on your vacation – definitely plan and book in advance. It’s going to be difficult to get last-minute tables at restaurants, especially in Capri Town and Anacapri.

Untold Italy Capri Tours

If you join our 4-day Untold Italy Capri Tour, it includes an incredible food experience with Holly and Gianluca, featuring their amazing local produce, at their villa garden, a chance to take in the charms of Anacapri, experience artisan sandal making, and a leisurely boat tour around the island.

About your guest – Holly Star from Giardino di Capri

holly star and gianluca

Holly was born and raised in Sydney, Australia; practiced as a lawyer and is now director of her employment and industrial advisory business which she still runs abroad from her island home in Capri.

In 2013, she visited Capri for the very first time. On the second evening of her three-night stay in Capri, she was recommended to dine at Michel’angelo, only a short walk from the famous Piazzetta. It was this dinner that changed her life! She met Gianluca, the owner of Michel’angelo, a local Caprese, and her now husband.

And, whilst they couldn’t speak the same language, they both knew there was something between them from the first smile they shared as she entered the restaurant. Now married, they live on the island year-round raising their two children, Valentino (7 years) and Francesca (5 years).

Holly had a quick initiation to island life and joined Gianluca running Michel’angelo after their marriage in 2014. Together they have since opened the Michel’angelo cooking school, teaching guests from all over the world how to cook the island’s cuisine using Gianluca’s family recipes at over 750 classes in 7 years. They’ve taken their cooking class on the road, most recently collaborating with EATALY at their USA and Canadian locations in early 2020. Holly and Gianluca also expanded their offerings to include gourmet picnics, tasting sessions, villa and boat catering and their range of authentic food and wine products they ship around the world.

After 12 years in business, Ristorante Michel’angelo sadly closed at the end of 2020 however, their legacy will continue at their new venture, a sea view garden property, the Giardino di Capri. Holly & Gianluca continue to share their love of the island, its mouth-watering local produce, and traditions through cooking classes, tasting sessions, aperitivo evenings, olive harvests, private events, art and cultural workshops, relaxation activities, and much more on their farm adjacent to the Grotta Azzurra with unparalleled views of Ischia, Procida, the Bay of Naples and Vesuvius and their picturesque garden villa in Anacapri

Check out the Giardino di Carpri food and wine packages plus their amazing cooking classes

You can find Holly on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Marina Piccola – small port where you’ll find beach clubs
  • Anacapri – town on Capri with a more intimate and quiet atmosphere
  • Capri town – main town on the island with ritzy piazza, shopping and gardens

Food & Wine

  • spaghetti alle vongole – spaghetti with clams
  • melanzane parmigiana – eggplant crumbed, fried and served with tomato
  • escarole – endive, a leafy vegetable belonging to the Chicory family
  • friselle – previously was stale bread used as an ingredients in cucina povera to avoid waste – now usually made specifically for caponata
  • Parmigiana – a baked in dish of sliced eggplant/aubergine layered with cheese and tomato sauce. You can use alternative vegetables depending on the season
  • Caprese caponata – made with friselle and cold ingredients like tomatoes, olives and sott’olio eggplant
  • Insalata Caprese – the famous salad made with tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella
  • Ravioli Caprese – filled with goats cheese called caciotta topped with a tomato sauce and basil
  • Caciotta – a type of cheese produced from the milk of cowssheepgoats, or water buffalo with lots of variations
  • Torta Caprese – a traditional cake made with chocolate and either almonds or walnuts
  • insalata di mare – seafood salad
  • Taurasi DOCG – a local red wine
  • Fettucine al limone, Risotto al limone, Linguine Marina Piccola – lemon based savoury dishes
  • Delizia al limone – a dome-shaped sponge drizzled with a limoncello-based syrup, filled with lemon-flavored custard
  • babà – a famous pastry from Naples, of a very soft, allowing it to absorb the alcoholic syrup flavored with rum, usually, but there is a limoncello version on Capri
  • scialatielli – the local fresh pasta, consisting of short. thick strands
  • Pezzogna all’acqua pazza – fish in “crazy water” – a dish made with tomatoes and garlic
  • prezzemolo – parsely
  • spigola, orata, scorfano – local fish in Capri that you will see on menus
  • totani – local squid either stuffed with cheese and vegetables (ripieni) or fried and served with potato
  • baccalà – dried salt cod fish
  • chichierchie – an ancient legume with a delicate flavor, sometimes square shaped but quite irregular

Resources

  • jaffle – what a toasted cheese sandwich is called in Australia
  • Pasqua – Easter
  • cucina povera – meaning poor cooking – it’s food from rural Italy and for the peasants, where there is no waste
  • cultivar – a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding

Resources from Untold Italy

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