Raj Mathur sees a car pull up to Casa Italia and he greets the visitor with a warm smile. Even though there’s a “closed” sign on the front door of the gourmet market and it has been vacant of chefs and foodies for an hour, he has been expecting company. Tonight he’s expecting students for his restaurant’s monthly class, which offers an introduction to Indian cooking.
He ushers the first student to arrive past the shelves of hard-to-find spices, past racks of wine and olive oil, where tucked behind a refrigeration unit full of Italian delicatessen is a demonstration kitchen. His wife, Nita Mathur, is pulling out produce and equipment and placing it on a large stainless steel table. She stops what she’s doing to greet the first guest. She does so with a warmth equal to her husband’s. A few minutes after being introduced to the convivial couple, it already feels like you’re old friends. It’s this aspect, the comfort and warmth, that keeps a lot of people coming back to the monthly Friday night Indian and Italian cooking classes.
In past, they’ve had as many as 22 people attend classes, but tonight a bigger group’s last-minute cancelation leaves only a fortunate three students. They’ll get to take home a lot of leftovers.
“Are you hungry?” Nita asks.
“Is the Pope catholic?” Raj chimes in.
Today in the Indian cooking class, they’re making saag murg (chicken in a spicy spinach sauce), basmati rice pulao with mixed vegetables (a long-grain rice dish), cucumber raita (a yogurt salad) and Nita’s coconut burfi (a milk-and-coconut-based fudge).
Raj Mathur pours a glass of wine and begins explaining what many people find curious — Casa Italia’s emphasis on both Indian and Italian. Both Raj and Nita Mathur grew up in India and then spent a few decades in London before moving to the United States. Casa Italia was founded in 1984 by Giuseppe and Nanette Galloni, who operated it for the 18 years. The Mathurs bought the business and have been operating it for the past 11. The former owners started hosting classes two decades ago. Raj and Nita Mathur weren’t expecting to host Indian classes or carry Indian goods, until their visitors requested it. These days, Nita Mathur leads the Indian classes and Frank Silvestro leads the Italian classes.
The next guests to arrive at the cooking class are Longboat Key residents Ann and Fred Marsh. They are regular visitors to Casa Italia, and this is the fourth cooking class they’ve taken. Raj immediately pours them glasses of wine and catches up with the duo.
The Marshes are pleased to learn it’ll just be a few students, because usually the classes are pretty full. It’s impressive considering the popularity has come solely from word of mouth. Some people discover the classes while they’re looking for a hard-to-find ingredient the restaurant’s market carries. Others come seeking some of the best meats and cheese in town. That’s how the Marshes discovered Casa Italia — a friend from New York City recommended it for the Italian products. The Marshes are what Ann Marsh calls “Italophiles,” huge fans of the red, white and green.
“It’s as good as what we’ve found in Italy,” says Ann Marsh.
The regulars came in one evening and learned about the Indian Food Friday, when Nita prepares a catered Indian meal for pick up.
“We thought it was just about the best we’d ever had,” she says.
But the quality of the classes and food prep isn’t the only thing that keep the Marshes coming back. It’s the stories Raj and Nita Mathur share about their family, their culture and their heritage along with the organized and insightful way they teach.
Nita begins preparing papadum bread, a crisp seasoned dough cooked over the gas burner in the kitchen. She says it’s a running joke in her heritage that families test a new bride to see if she can crisp papadum bread without burning it. The class wants to know, did Nita Marthur burn the bread when she was a new bride? How did Raj and Nita meet in the first place?
Nita Marthur grew up in the town of Ajmer, India, until she was 21. Raj had grown up in New Delhi, until he was 13 years old, and then he moved to London, where he lived for 38 years.
In 1978, he was visiting his aunt, who lived across the street from Nita Rai. Raj and Nita met each other in passing when they were with their families, and Nita’s mother, Rajeshwari Rai, told her daughter she thought he was a nice young man. Nita agreed. The two met, and instantly clicked. Nita Mathur did not burn the papadum bread.
“She passed with flying colors,” Raj Mathur says.
Back in the class at Casa Italia, the chatting subsides as the demonstration takes over. Nita discusses the spices as she uses them, passing them around for the students to smell. She explains what to look for when picking out the produce, and gives tips on how to make dishes easier and more convenient for busy chefs (like using frozen chopped spinach or mixed vegetables and prepared yogurt).
For the most part, Nita Mathur does the cooking and demonstrating. Occasionally, Raj will stir a dish and check on the temperatures — he’s best at hosting and sharing stories. But the class learns that before he got married, he would make his own yogurt. It is a common dish in India to help cleanse and balance the palate from spicy dishes — so he does know his way around the kitchen.
As the class comes to a close, there’s more than enough food to go around. The talking subsides as the students dive in to the completed dishes. It’s as quiet as it has been all night. The rice is a big hit. It’s all a big hit. They’ll be back next month for the next class.
Casa Italia’s Chef Frank Italian Cooking Class
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 17
Casa Italia’s Nita & Raj – Cook Indian Cuisine
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24
Where: Casa Italia, 2080 Constitution Blvd.
Info: Call 924-1179 for reservations.