The last time I saw Antonio Carluccio was at a party at the Italian embassy. He, the writer Anna del Conte, and the chefs Giorgio Locatelli and Francesco Mazzei, posed for a photograph. They were laughing, teasing each other, clearly enjoying themselves. Although Antonio relied on a walking stick he was not going to miss out on the fun or the adulation. He was the centre of a living tableau of Italian eating in this country.
Antonio Carluccio OBE, OMRI, writer, restaurateur, retailer, brand, television chef, ambassador for Italian culinary culture for almost 50 years. He came a long way from Vietri Sul Mare near Salerno where he was born, the son of a station master.
I first met Antonio when he ran the Neal Street Restaurant in the 1980s. In those days its stylish, pared-back decor (designed by Terence Conran, at the time Antonio’s brother-in-law) was a refreshing change from the glitzy photographs, clutter and oleaginous charm of the more traditional London Italian eatery.
The food, too, was far closer to the minimalist purity of true Italian cookery. Most notable of all, it was one of the very few places in those days where you could find wild mushrooms – on prominent display in season – and truffles, served up with canny portion control by Antonio. As the 1998 Good Food Guide said, “wild mushrooms and truffles … form the base for soups and salads and lend their meatiness and aromatic lustre to pasta dishes”.
For a long time he was Italian cookery in this country. He was certainly its most visible proponent. It’s rare for anyone in the food world to combine the gifts of writer (I still feel his Complete Italian Food is one of the two or three finest books on Italian food), retailer, cook and performer.
But for all his success, honours and accolades, it seemed to me that he remained the same fellow as had left Vietri Sul Mare: ambitious, certainly, but also with a profound love and sense of the pleasure of food.
This was something that he conveyed brilliantly on television, whether pottering around in a kitchen or stomping about the British countryside with a fancy walking stick and a wicker basket in which to put the fungi and wild herbs he seemed to be able to find with ease (in truth, his friend and TV buddy Gennaro Contaldo was responsible for tracking them down beforehand).
Antonio Carluccio obituary
He was a rather unlikely television hero – stocky-framed, his chunky, pouchy face (not unlike certain fungi, I now realise), topped with abundant white hair, stamping about in a rather grumpy manner. But somehow that gravelly voice , with its light but distinct Italian inflection, managed to communicate a deep passion, authority, wisdom and greed. He had a gift for transforming ingredients simply and with panache into food that always looked ineffably edible. And he looked like the man to eat it.
Although I knew he was haunted by demons, he always treated me with affection, as if I was a wayward but essentially decent nephew. As I watched him at that party at the Italian embassy, I felt how much we owed Antonio for our experience of Italian food and our pleasure in it.