Antonio Carluccio at 80: 'As long as my mind is still working then so will I.'

As he opens the latest restaurant to bear his name, Catherine Scott meets Antonio Carluccio, who is celebrating his 80th birthday.

Antonio Carluccio at his new restaurant in York .

The historic surroundings of the former Terry’s chocolate shop over-looking St Helen’s Square in York seems a fitting place to meet the Godfather of Italian cooking.

“I just love this place,” says Antonio Carluccio of the building which is now one of his eponymous restaurants. “History is so important. Sitting here reminds me very much of being in Turin where they still have espresso with chocolate melting on the top.”

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Carluccio is in York not only to celebrate his 80th birthday but to visit the 103rd restaurant to bear his name. It is the biggest in the Carluccio chain and the Grade II listed building has been painstakingly restored.

Original features such as the chocolate shop’s confectionary cabinets, timber panelled walls, glass domed ceiling and sweeping staircase contrast with the contemporary furniture and modern artwork synonymous with Carluccio’s .

“Location is very important. What is different about Carluccio’s is that they find the right position first before expanding,” he says. “And respect of history. Without history there is nothing.”

A master raconteur and lover of a good joke, Carluccio recalls the last time he was in York, with the late Keith Floyd. “We were staying in a hotel and he (Floyd) ordered a bottle of whisky. He drank three quarters of it and I had a quarter. I don’t remember a great deal of my last visit to York.”

Carluccio may have sold the restaurants more than a decade ago (he now acts as a consultant) but he is as passionate as ever. “It is very important to me that Carluccio’s stays true to my ethos and has integrity,” he says. “Yes, there has to be compromise sometimes, but Carluccio’s has achieved what we set out to achieve all those years ago. 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.”

Carluccio 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 this Italian who moved to London in the 1970s. His latest cookery book simply entitled Vegetables, says it all and he is working on a sequel, Fruit due out next year.

It is five years since I last interviewed Carluccio. In that time he has had two new knees, lost weight and found love with German archaeologist Sabine Stevenson, although he says he has no intention of ever remarrying. “I have known Sabine for a long time. She is divorced with three children and I am divorced with none. I am very happy and Sabine is my partner in happiness.”

For his 80th birthday Sabine, who is 25 years younger than Carluccio, threw a surprise party for him with a select bunch of family and ‘best friends’ including actor Robert Powell, Raymond Blanc and Yorkshire chef Brian Turner.

Fame doesn’t interest Carluccio, who was one of the first celebrity chefs, and while he may be 80 he has no intention of hanging up his apron any time soon – he will be demonstrating at the BBC Good Food Show in Harrogate next month.

“I have to take care of my body but so long as my mind is functioning I will keep going.” He says he keeps his mind sharp by playing Sudoku every morning. However, he still likes to be naughty, admitting that his favourite birthday present was two tins of condensed milk.

“I adore it. It reminds me of my childhood when we would make holes in the tin with nails and drink it straight from the can.”

Carluccio grew up in the village of Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi coast of southern Italy and then moved to the wooded northwest of Italy. One of seven children, 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.

“We were poor but somehow she managed to create the most wonderful, tasty dishes out of nothing. It was simple but delicious.”

The death of his brother Enrico when Carluccio was 23 was the turning point in his life. Enrico, who drowned in a lake, was the youngest of the seven Carluccio children. His mother never recovered from her son’s death and shortly after Carluccio himself decided to leave for Vienna. He would never return to Italy to live although he does visit regularly.

He worked as a wine merchant and then, in 1975, moved to London and while learning English, became an independent 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 Priscilla opened Carluccio’s, a shop specialising in Italian food and fungi.

His hobby of studying and collecting wild mushrooms as a child continued to flourish as he found wild mushrooms growing in the countryside close to London, almost completely undiscovered.

This venture fired Carluccio’s ambition to bring the best Italian ingredients and the true taste of Italy to Britain. In November 1999, he opened the first Carluccio’s Café, combining a café with an authentic Italian food shop and deli.

“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. I am very proud of the things we have achieved. Do I have any regrets over the last 80 years? Not really, only marriage,” he jokes.

In September 1999, he was awarded the Commendatore OMRI by the Ambassador of Italy. The equivalent of a British knighthood, the decoration recognises a lifetime of service to the Italian food industry and his television career has nearly been as long as his culinary one.

In 1983 he made his first appearance on BBC2 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 22 books, made numerous television programmes, including the hugely popular Antonio Carluccio’s Northern Italian Feast and more recently Two Greedy Italians with Gennaro Contaldo.

As well as the publication of Fruit, Carluccio plans to get a children’s book he says he has been working on for the last 20 years into print.

“It is call Senor Porcini and Madam Chanterelle,” he explains and, no surprises, it is all about his beloved mushrooms. “People just don’t know that without mushrooms there would be no life. There are 200,000 different varieties of fungi and I want to pass my knowledge on.”

Life has not always been a bed of roses for this characterful Italian. After the sale of his business and breakdown of his third marriage, he admitted himself to the Priory for a few days, suffering from exhaustion. He has talked openly about bouts of depression and even suicide attempts, which stem back to the death of his brother.

But at 80 life is looking good. With a shock of white hair and a twinkle in his eyes, Carluccio still has the charisma which draws the crowds which is clear as he stands on the balcony of the new flagship Carluccio’s and waves his elaborate walking stick in the air,

“I whittled it myself,” he says proudly. “I carved wood as a child but then I really got into when I was filming. It was something I could do to while away the time. I have always had a love of nature and I think this is an extension of that.”

He is also already planning a new series with ‘an exciting young Italian chef’ who is working in Belgium. “As long as my mind is still working then so will I.”

Turn to page 40 for a selection of recipes from Antonio Carluccio’s Vegetables, published by Quadrille priced £25.