When my Midlands-bred mother went to Dublin, to visit her new Irish-Italian in-laws, there were frowns all round, when she asked for ketchup to plaster on the homemade pasta. But when I meet Antonio Carluccio – the man who’s known as the ‘Godfather of Italian gastronomy’ – I get the impression that he’d let me put whatever I like on my dinner, and even help me get the lid off the mayonnaise.
This may come as a surprise to those who’ve read the recent flurry of headlines, declaring that Carluccio has slammed the way the British make Spaghetti Bolognese. The uproar was caused by a comment he made at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a few weeks ago. In fact, he’s said it all before and doesn’t seem bothered by the adaptation. ‘The Italians are responsible for that,’ he tells me, ‘because in the beginning, Italians altered the way they did things to favour the English.’ Spag Bol, it seems, is the Italian equivalent of Chicken Tikka Masala, the Indian dish that originated in Glasgow.
We are at the flagship Carluccio’s in Covent Garden, for the launch of a new menu that promises to take us to Sicily. ‘The food couldn’t get any more authentic,’ says CEO Neil Wickers, addressing us from the front of the room. ‘Who said that?’ asks Carluccio, who’s standing next to him. At 79, he’s propped up by a walking stick he’s whittled himself. ‘If anyone asks, Carluccio said that!’ says Wickers, with the patience of Steve Martin in Parenthood, taking a bucket off his child’s head.
The new menu, which brings back Lambrusco and swaps pancetta for pig cheek is, we are told, a nod to Carluccio’s 1980s Neal Street restaurant, which was masterminded by Priscilla Conran. Sister of Terence Conran, Priscilla was the creative force behind the brand – and Carluccio’s third wife, at the time. I wonder how Carluccio feels about his ex-wife’s ideas being resurrected. I don’t get as far as forming the question, because when I mention her name, Carluccio tells me she is currently unwell. ‘I didn’t see her for a long time. She doesn’t want to see me. You see because two years ago, I have a quick divorce,’ he adds.
Carluccio goes on to tell me that women are his Achilles heel. He says he learnt to cook partly because he was living away from home in Vienna and wanted to eat the food his mother used to make, but also because, ‘I found it much easier with girls – it was better than inviting them to come and see my etchings!’
I have no doubt that Carluccio would be a success with women even if he served up burnt baked beans. At less than half his age, I’m a little bit in love with him after one meeting. I find myself wanting to hold his hand and stroke his jumper. I do have a thing for men in nice knitwear, but I suspect it’s more than this. His warmth makes you want to hug him.
It’s no secret that Carluccio made six attempts to commit suicide. He says, ‘when I had depression, I went to the Priory. The pathology of some is that they will be forever depressed, but for me, it went and it’s fantastic!’ He adds, ‘I give up drinking because I discovered I became more depressed. So I send it away and now I am very happy.’ Then he asks about me: ‘You are full of enthusiasm, it’s good. You don’t seem to be ever depressed or something. Did you ever have depression?’ This is probably the most personal conversation I’ve had, with someone I’ve never met before.
The concept of the night’s dinner is that our virtual reality headsets will transport us to Sicily – will this make the food taste better? Carluccio, who says Italian food is the best, continues to be candid: ‘No, I don’t think really it’s that important, but I didn’t see it yet!’ Later, addressing the room under Wickers’ watchful eye, Carluccio – who no longer owns the business – remembers which side his panettone is buttered. Paraphrasing The Godfather, he says: ‘The press, please write the right stuff or I make you an offer you can’t refuse!’
Quite frankly, I can’t imagine Carluccio making me any kind of offer I could refuse.