Around Italy with a saucepan
FOR HIS LATEST PROJECT, CHEF GINO D’ACAMPO HAS GONE HOME, EXPLORING THE CULINARY WONDERS OF ITALY’S WEST COAST. HE TALKS TO RUSSELL LEADBETTER ABOUT THE DELIGHTS HE DISCOVERED ALONG THE WAY
GINO D’Acampo recently tweeted a nice photograph of himself with one of his young children. “Back at home in Sardinia for a week, nothing better than relaxing and getting kisses from my little angel,” he wrote to his 1.75 million followers.
It was hard not to envy him his time spent relaxing under the Italian sun but at least you have to recognise that he has worked hard for his right to a family break.
D’Acampo, 41, has just published his latest book, Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape, and his latest ITV series, a spin-off from the book, continues on Wednesday evening. Not only has he developed a successful chain of restaurants (he says he has already scouted “one or two possible locations” in Scotland) but he is resident chef on ITV’s This Morning, and his Italian Escape book titles have sold more than 300,000 copies.
D’Acampo was born in Naples, into a large family. As he has explained, the food they ate was rather traditional: the recipes tended towards the simple yet nutritious, based on fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. He has said that his grandfather Ciro, who had a restaurant, always insisted that a good recipe didn’t need many ingredients, “because if the ingredients are good quality and full of flavour, why do you have to cover up or change their taste?”.
Ciro seems to have played a key role in the young Gino’s passion for food. “My grandfather was a respected professional chef and a great inspiration for me,” he says. “My admiration for him certainly played a large part in my choice of career.” And his very earliest food-related memory, in the family kitchen or around the table, relates to Ciro again: “My earliest memory was seeing him rolling gnocchi. He was very skilful and I could watch him for ages.”
What were his favourite foods when he was growing up? “It won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve always loved pasta but, having grown up on the coast, where fresh fish and seafood is so plentiful, I can’t remember a time when I’ve not absolutely loved those flavours.”
D’Acampo was just 11 when he walked into Ciro’s restaurant and decided that cooking was for him. “The only other careers I considered were medicine and dentistry ... something where I could wear a white coat, basically,” he says. “But I found that you have to study really hard to be a success in those professions and, as a chef also gets to wear a white jacket, I decided to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps instead.”
After training at the Luigi de Medici Catering College, he arrived in London aged 19, to work at The Orchard Restaurant in Hampstead and then at the Cambio restaurant in Surrey. He worked with Tesco on its Finest range and this paved the way for his TV debut, on Great Food Live on UKTV Food.
He has genuinely warm memories of the travels he made and the meals he tried while researching his Italian Coastal Escape book. He journeyed up the country’s west coast, visiting the Aeolian Islands, Calabria, Campania, Capri, Lazio, Tuscany and Elba. “It was an amazing trip in so many ways,” he writes in the introduction, “and I was reminded once again of the beauty of the Italian coastline, the incredible quality of the ingredients, and how passionate the locals are about their food, especially their regional sensibilities.” A few sample dishes will suffice here: beef carpaccio with horseradish and parmesan cream sauce; roasted kid with garlic new potatoes; sweet and sour rabbit with borettane onions.
Asked if there was anything that was new to him, and whether there was one meal that blew him away, D’Acampo says: “Sometimes, things that we might find new or innovative are actually traditional and centuries-old; it’s just that we haven’t discovered them yet. I think this happens a lot in the world of food. For instance, I’d never tried pizza made from chickpea flour, but I had that experience on the island of Elba. Delicious! I’ll certainly be looking forward to the next time.”
Asked which meals he would urge, say, Scottish visitors to Italy to sample, his response is unequivocal. “All of them! I think every one of them is amazing and I definitely had the Scots palate in mind as I created my own versions.”
In his book he expresses surprise that
relatively few tourists take the time to visit Calabria. He is convinced we are missing out on so much. It’s a beautiful region, he says, a natural paradise. “The area is mostly unspoilt by tourism and there are nearly 500 miles of coastline to explore. The food is amazing and is strongly influenced by Arabic cuisine. They like things spicy and use a lot of peperoncino to add flavour and heat. I love nduja – a spicy spreadable sausage – which the Calabrians spread on toast or add to seafood dishes.”
D’Acampo and his wife Jessica have three children – Luciano, Rocco and Mia. The juggling act can be hard at times, though: he says that when he is working, he goes “flat out” and is constantly on the move, travelling all over the country. He makes up for it, he adds, by taking long family holidays.
He touches, good-naturedly, on his food weaknesses – “Most Italians have a liking for Nutella and I’m no exception. Kinder Eggs are also a definite weakness” – and says that, as with many chefs who are constantly exposed to food, and food preparation, that sometimes all he really wants is eggs on toast.
D’Acampo’s website lists his restaurant empire: branches of My Pasta Bar, in central London; the full-service Gino D’Acampo – My Restaurant, in London, Manchester and Leeds, with others due to open south of the Border. Can he ever see himself coming to Scotland and following in the footsteps of many other Italians who have made a success up here? Absolutely, he affirms. “I love coming to Scotland and I have already taken a look at one or two possible locations.” Watch this space, as they say. Anything else on his mind, we ask? “One thing to remember,” he advises. “When you say the word ‘gnocchi’, it rhymes with ‘hockey’. On no account pronounce it ‘gn-och-aye’.”
Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape, Hodder & Stoughton, £20. Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape continues on STV this Wednesday, November 8, at 8pm. www. ginodacampo.com
The beauty of Tuscany – apart from the landscape – is the rustic, hearty food that uses only the freshest ingredients. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock