TN sits down with Antonio Carluccio, the man whose name is found on over 50 Italian restaurants in England, a few in Dubai and one on Dawson Street.
I have a friend from Italy who refers to Jesus’s mammy as Queen Mary whenever she comes up in conversation. I have never asked if this was an Italian thing or his own little pet name for her, but I have always associate this Queen Mary with Italy as a result.
Carluccio’s on Dawson Street looks like a Queen Mary. She is blue and neat and quietly regal, a stately caryatid holding up the corner of Duke Street. I went there the Friday before I interviewed the man himself and dined with a friend who I had not seen in a while. What we ate is immaterial, because everything there is fantastic.
We chose from the menu fisso (fixed price menu), two courses at €15 a head. Honestly, this is possibly the best value for money you will get in Dublin. The food is exquisite. There are not many places you will get as fine ingredients as well prepared as at Carluccio’s. It’s a fine break from the college diet of Pot Noodle made with radiator water.
There was one incident. While waiting for our starters, we ordered a bowl of olives, which never came, but which subsequently appeared on the bill. We pointed it out to our waiter and he sorted it, so no big deal. “Don’t worry, Lorna,” said I to my dining companion; “I’m meeting the boss Monday, heads will fucking roll.”
When I met Carluccio on Monday afternoon, the olives do not come up in conversation. He is sitting outdoors, tucking into the linguine ai frutti di mare. You see straight away why he is called the godfather of Italian cuisine. Even before we are introduced, it is obvious that he is something special. The man has a presence.
From the off, he is a joy to talk to. He has lived life and he knows what he is talking about, and if he does not, then he does not pretend to. It is one thing to come across as wise when you are talking, but you really can judge the intelligence of a man by the way he listens; as I ask every question, Carluccio studies me intensely. His answers convey exactly what he wants, and he is always fully confident of his reply. He exudes a wisdom that is only gained through experiencing the world through a medium you love.
We discuss food journalism and he tells me that he is critical of food writers; he has known too many lousy journalists. You must know a cuisine well, he insists, and food critics, for the most part, do not. They know bits and pieces, so how can they truly comment on a cuisine? If Antonio Carluccio only knows one thing, then he knows it better than anyone alive today. He is the last word on Italian gastronomy. He adores it. He does not cook food; he cooks Italian food, exclusively and unapologetically.
“He does not cook food; he cooks Italian food, exclusively and unapologetically”
Italian cooking is “sophisticated simplicity”, and Carluccio seems to best exemplify his philosophy. His maxim is “minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour”. “I’m not a chef, I’m a cook,” he says, with spectacularly grandiose modesty. He does not go in for “bombastic cooking”, as he calls it. He talks about how you can go to a restaurant today and there might be a dot of a reduction on a plate, with its own flavour, seemingly an integral part of the dish. This madness inspires a choice quote: “You can’t eat that with a fork!”
And that style can be expensive too, he says. It seems like an odd remark from a man who has done as well as he has. It is the only time he ever alludes to money but it is a justified comment. People need to make a living, and much of the food that Carluccio champions is wholesome southern Italian food that would have been the staples of the peasant’s table. Italian food can earn you money, but he does not say it in a mercenary way; he says it practically, and not as it applies to him.
This leads me to bring up arrangiarsi, one of my new favourite words, and one I learned from watching Carluccio’s television series, Two Greedy Italians. There is no direct translation, but basically it is getting by, managing, with an element of cute hoor-ery about it. Essentially, it is student living. He smiles when I ask him about it. I wonder whether all the cutlery I have stolen from restaurants in the last month to stock my bare college kitchen would come under the heading of arrangiarsi. I do not ask. For Carluccio, Italian cooking embodies arrangiarsi. It is taking great, simple ingredients and treating them right. If you know what you are doing, then you will eat very well.
He tells me a story about an event he did at the University of Cambridge. He was doing a demonstration, and started with a stack of potatoes and little else. The Cambridge crowd scoffed at such humble ingredients. He soon turned the pile of spuds into gnocchi, soft Italian dumplings which you would not have thought could possibly come from what he started with. For Carluccio, and in the spirit of arrangiarsi, if you have “a bit of fantasy, the source can be whatever you want.”
I ask him what he thinks of Ireland and he says that he likes the atmosphere here. One thing he does not like hearing in Britain, his adopted homeland, is when they say the Irish are an emotional people, as if it were a bad thing. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he says; “If you cry, cry. Irish and Italians, we have this in common.”
He admits, with a smile, to having committed sacrilege: he has drunk a Guinness shandy. I recoil, visibly disgusted. “It’s not bad. It’s not bastardising it if it’s a new flavour and it’s good.” Not much I can say to that. I feel that even if I were not interviewing him I would still be writing down most of what he says.
“Don’t say ‘come see my etchings,’ say ‘taste my pasta.’ It’s been said food and sex are the most important things; one can’t exist without the other. So why separate them?”
He laughs when I bring up women, who get quite a big mention in his recent autobiography, A Recipe for Life. He jokes that “women are a necessary evil”. He has had three marriages, three divorces and “many stories in between”. Food plays as big a part in this aspect of his life as any.
His advice on the fairer sex? “Don’t say ‘come see my etchings,’ say ‘taste my pasta.’ It’s been said food and sex are the most important things; one can’t exist without the other. So why separate them?” There are not many 75-year-old men I can think of who could say this and not seem creepy, but with Carluccio it is just another natural truth.
When I ask about his depression he responds in the same quietly assured manner. Yes, he was depressed; it is part of the reason he wrote his autobiography, because “when you see it on paper you can be honest with yourself. You have to be true to yourself. You must talk to people, be open and communicate. Not kidding yourself.”
He is happy now. He is 75 and smokes the entire time that we are talking. He is one of those people that you think will live forever. As Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “only wastrels die and people who can’t eat fat-bacon.” Carluccio is neither of these. He has lived life to the full and has much more to do.
“Life is made of a desire to feel well.” One of the last things he says to me is not to take it too seriously; he does not specify what “it” is. I genuinely could have sat there and listened to him talk all day. As I leave, he asks me what it is I want to do. I say I would like to write, and he just nods and smiles as if to say, “Then go and write.” Talking to him makes you want to go out and do what you want; that is an incredible quality to have. It comes with being content with a life well lived, and with having plenty more to do.