Getting to know the godfather of Italian food: Antonio Carluccio (Interview)

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch up with none other than Antonio Carluccio, a widely-respected Italian chef, restaurateur and food writer commonly regarded as the godfather of Italian cuisine. He opened the first Carluccio’s restaurant in 1999, having developed a passion for Italian food whilst growing up in Piedmont, Italy.Earlier this year, Carluccio opened a new restaurant in Mermaid Quay, Cardiff , joining over 90 of its kind throughout the UK, alongside branches in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

Photo of Antonio Carluccio by Tony Briggs

Photo of Antonio Carluccio by Tony Briggs

 
From his deep olive complexion and his silver curly hair, to his beaming smile and his strong accent, Antonio gives off a cheeky Italian charm that makes him almost instantly like-able. It’s hard to believe he turned 78 recently, perhaps owing to his Mediterranean diet.
 
I chatted to Carluccio about his restaurant chain, the most memorable moments of his career, his role in the prison rehab charity, The Clink and what he cooks for his family at home.

What makes Carluccio’s restaurant so successful?

It’s not that we do incredible things – but that normality is a good thing. That is our motto in Italy: don’t over-do it,  don’t do it for the stars; produce honest, simple and good food that pleases everybody. The other bits and pieces, like good service, good ambience and good prices, obviously have to go with this. So, the combination of these four things is what makes Carluccio’s a success.

What  is your favourite Italian meal, if you were going cook at home for your family, perhaps?

At home, it depends on when you are going to eat. Sometimes I arrive home late, feeling hungry, and I decide to prepare a midnight feast. I cook one dish that Italians cook very often, because it is extremely simple. It’s done almost instantly – good olive oil, a little bit of fresh garlic and chilli. You fry it and then you add the cooked pasta, and that’s it. It’s called Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino – a well-known Italian dish, which some people even claim to be an aphrodisiac.
 
Still remaining with the simplicity, I also like to prepare a fresh tomato and basil sauce to serve with fresh spaghetti.
 
What has been the most memorable moment of your career?
 
I have received accolades from both the Italian and the UK governments, and that was completely unexpected. I have done things in my life, not to receive an accolade and not to make millions of money, but because, I was satisfied in my work and I was passionate about doing a good job.
 
Money and me are on a warpath! No, not really – I just don’t like the idea of wanting to be successful because of money. I like to be successful because I believe in it; if this is the case, then the money will follow anyway. The most important thing is to do a good job, and when you do a good job you are rewarded as well.
 
For me, that reward took the form of the accolades that the Italian and UK governments gave me, and the OBE is something that not many foreigners are awarded. It was in recognition of my food writing, but I really didn’t expect it.

The accolade I received in Italy is highly revered, although it doesn’t mean anything in England. I am part of the Altagamma Foundation [a collaboration of Italy’s leading firms, individuals and brands set up to promote the Italian industry of excellence and its supporting culture].Altagamma means ‘high bracket’ and it is given to a company or an individual that is doing very well – not just very well in terms of money, but also in terms of culture and status – you know, Gucci, Ferrari, all of that.

Once, I also received a wonderful prize from Marzi, the wine company. Every year, Marzi gives fantastic prizes for art and literature. I received a prize for my wines. They gave me a bottle engraved with gold, quite a big one. This was lovely in itself, but when I arrived home, I discovered that wasn’t the prize – the prize was 20 boxes of that wine! Now that really was a surprise.
 
I notice that you’ve done a lot of work with The Clink as well?
 
I like to do charity that is not visible. Carluccio’s have dedicated a recipe to The Clink charity and 50p per portion is donated to them. In a couple of years, we have sold 3 million portions, collecting £1.5 million.
 
I do it really because I get pleasure from doing it; I would like to see the guys come out of prison after they’ve paid what they have to pay, and start a new life. We have at least two or three former staff from The Clink restaurants working in Carluccio’s somewhere.
 
In England, I often wonder how much of the money that is donated to charity actually reaches the charity. I like to see that the benefit is directed directly to the charity.
 
Years ago, I owned a restaurant and I met the wife of an ambassador who told me she knew of a village in Nepal where people were making paper to sell, for their daily proceeds. They also grew morels (little mushrooms) very well, and she asked me if I would be interested in these for my restaurant.
 
The people were selling their morels to the middle men for just 3 pence per kilo. Dried morel for 3 pence per kilo is a joke! They cost 200 pence per kilo in Italy and the UK.
 
So, I gave her £7,000 cash  and told her to go and buy me as many morels as she could – not for 3 pence per kilo, but for 40 pence per kilo – so that the villagers could feel the benefit.
 
Not only did I end up with plenty of good quality morels for my restaurant, but I received the most wonderful letter from the villagers, inviting me to visit them.
 
Now, following the recent earthquake, their village may well be destroyed and it would be nice to go there and give them some money to restart their lives. I am going to look into doing this, but I don’t know exactly where the village is, so I have to do some research. But, this is the kind of charity that I like to be involved with – nothing to do with publicity or anything, but just for the benefit of the people.
 
Me and Carluccio

I had a great time at the Carluccio’s restaurant launch and I felt very privileged to meet Antonio. He was friendly, welcoming and down to earth. I’ve picked up a copy of Antonio’s Pasta cook book and I’m pleased to discover that it includes the recipe for his favourite meal, Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino – can’t wait to try it out!

Enjoyed my interview with Carluccio? Read my Carluccio’s restaurant review here.

 
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