A life well lived but with more challenges ahead

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LEEDS’S newest restaurant has a very famous name behind it. Antonio Carluccio, the ‘godfather’ of chefs tells Catherine Scott about his passion for Italian food and life.

VEn at the age of 74 Antonio Carluccio is a force to be reckoned with.

Carluccio's Leeds

Carluccio's Leeds

The so-called Godfather of celebrity chefs has been preaching the mantra of simple, locally grown produce for more than half a century.

The quality of the ingredients is what is important to Antonio Carluccio and his passion is clear for all to see, not just by the smile on his face but the rotund waist-line. Here is a man who loves good food and wine.

Now every gastro pub in every village in the country has adopted the “locally sourced” logo as if it were their own invention. But when Antonio Carluccio moved to London in the 1970s British cuisine was nothing to write home about.

“Britain doesn’t have its own cuisine to talk of. It takes bit from everywhere.”

Although he sold his chain of highly successful Carluccio’s Caffé’s in 2005 the maestro is once again involved in the brand which holds his name now acting as a consultant.

The most recent addition to Carluccio’s is a modern and chic restaurant and deli in Greek Street, Leeds.

“Carluccio’s has achieved what we set out to achieve. It offers something for everyone. You go into a Carluccio’s and there will be businessmen having lunch alongside the mother giving her child milk.

“People want to go somewhere where there is a good atmosphere, good service and good, simple, tasty food. What more can you ask for?”

Many will have seen Antonio Carluccio and his long-term friend and fellow chef Gennaro Contaldo taking a gastronomic pilgrimage around Italy as part of BBC2’s Two Greedy Italians.

Antonio is no stranger to cookery programmes

In 1983 he made his first appearance on BBC 2 talking about Mediterranean food and at the same time was asked to write his first book, An Invitation to Italian Cooking. Subsequently he has written 13 books, published worldwide and made numerous television programmes, including the hugely popular Antonio Carluccio’s Northern Italian Feast and Southern Italian Feast.

But Two Greedy Italians took him on a very personal journey back to his childhood in the village of Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi coast of southern Italy and then to the wooded northwest of Italy as well as acting as a social commentary on the Italy of today.

His family was poor but his mother made sure there was delicious food to eat; when times were tough he would go foraging for wild rocket and mushrooms in the countryside around Piedmont with his father.

One of his earliest memories is of watching his father on the station platform. As soon as the last train of the day had pulled out, it was Carluccio’s job to run and tell his mother that it was time to put the pasta on to boil.

“We were poor but somehow she managed to create the most wonderful, tasty dishes out of nothing.” He remembers with relish her frittata and omelettes.

“It was simple but delicious,” he recalls and this has been at the centre of his culinary ethos ever since.

But it was the death of his brother Enrico when Carluccio was 23 that was the turning point in his life. Enrico was the youngest of the seven Carluccio children and his death by drowning in a lake devastated the family.

Antonio’s mother never recovered and shortly after Antonio himself decided to leave Italy for Vienna. He would never return to Italy to live.

He worked as a wine merchant and then, in 1975, he moved to London and while learning English, became an independent wine merchant of Italian wines.

He met and fell in love with Priscilla, the sister of Sir Terence Conran. The couple were married for 28 years, but it ended in divorce in 2008.

It was Priscilla who recognised his flair for cooking and in 1981, Sir Terence Conran invited Antonio to become the managing director of the Neal Street Restaurant and 10 years later Antonio and his wife Priscilla opened Carluccio’s, a shop specialising in Italian food and fungi.

He had developed a hobby of studying and collecting wild mushrooms as a child in Italy and it continued to flourish as he found wild mushrooms growing in the English countryside close to London, almost completely undiscovered.

This venture fulfilled Antonio’s ambition to bring the best Italian ingredients and the true taste of Italy to Britain.

In November 1999, Antonio opened the first Carluccio’s Caffé, combining a caffé with an authentic Italian food shop and deli, on Marketplace in London, W1.

“At the time French cuisine was starting to have a big influence in Britain,” he says.

“I wanted to introduce the fresh flavours of Italy.” He claims to be the person who brought balsamic vinegar to this country .

“I am very proud of the things we have achieved.”

He has little time for his fellow “celebrity” chefs who have followed in his wake. “When I was first on television there was just me, Ken Hom and Mada Jaffrey.”

In September 1999, Antonio was awarded the Commendatore OMRI by the Ambassador of Italy. The equivalent of a British knighthood, the decoration recognises Antonio’s knowledge, enthusiasm and lifetime services to the Italian food industry through his consistent promotion and support of genuine, regional Italian food and wine.

In 2007, this was followed by an honorary OBE.

Despite his advancing years and failing body; as we speak he is on his way to hospital to get “my knee repaired so I can walk properly again”, he has no intention of slowing down.

But life has not always been a bed of roses for this characterful Italian.

After the sale of his business and breakdown of his marriage, his third, he admitted himself to the Priory for a few day, suffering from exhaustion.

Viewers of Two Greedy Italians will be familiar with his nap taking, but don’t be fooled this is not a man about to put down his apron any time soon and he is already planning his next project.

“I want to get my knee operation out of the way and then hopefully get back to work again, hopefully doing something with Gennaro again.”

He is back advising the restaurant chain that holds his name and woe betide them if they breach his ethos on hospitality. Antonio acknowledges there will always be more to learn about the food he is passionate about. Above all he believes it is important to remain loyal to the ingredients and cooking traditions of his country.

“I love Italy and I visit a lot, but England is my home. I just wish the weather was better.”

EVERYTHING UNDER ONE ROOF

CARLUCCIOS opened in Greek Street, Leeds last month offering its much-loved combination of an all-day caffè, restaurant, delicatessen and foodshop, all under one roof. The seasonally changing menu boasts an array of genuine Italian dishes, prepared on site daily by Carluccio’s chefs using only the freshest ingredients, many sourced direct from Italy. They also offer a picnic service packed with Italian treats to enjoy al fresco. At £45, each adult picnic serves two and is filled with tempting Italian dishes, freshly made to order in a reusable cool bag. 0113 242 2038 www.carluccios.com