Antonio Carluccio: He gave Italian and Jamie Oliver to the world

<i>Two Greedy Italians</i> stars Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo.
Two Greedy Italians stars Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo. Photo: Supplied

Antonio Carluccio

1937-2017

Antonio Carluccio, who has died aged 80 following a fall at his home, was largely responsible for drawing the British people and many others into a love affair with Italian food, and became not only a television personality but a luxury brand; in recent years he was known, with fellow Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo, for their BBC Two television series Two Greedy Italians.

Antonio Carluccio
Antonio Carluccio  Photo: Supplied

Curly-headed, rotund and volubly passionate about food, Carluccio was a caricature of what many think as  a typical Italian; on television he preached the true path of Italian cooking – as Mamma used to make it – in a heavily accented English unmitigated by his 30 years in Britain.

When Carluccio took over the running of the Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden in the early 1980s, Italian food to many people meant little more than spaghetti bolognaise. The fact that today every supermarket sells rocket, radicchio and focaccia; that nearly every restaurant pays homage to the Mediterranean Diet, and that wild mushroom-hunting has become something of a middle-class obsession is largely due to Carluccio.

By 2005 when part of the Carluccio empire was sold on the Alternative Investment Market it included, besides the Neal Street emporium, his television series and cookery books (most famously A Passion for Mushrooms (1995), and a chain of "Caffes" – restaurants combined with delicatessens where diners could buy Carluccio-branded Italian products at premium prices.

Chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio, with his collection of walking sticks he has carved from hazel branches, ...
Chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio, with his collection of walking sticks he has carved from hazel branches, something he's done all of his life. Each includes a mushroom carved into the top. Photo: Paul Manias

Yet Carluccio had unusual credentials for a celebrity chef, having never had any formal training. Nor, with his whimsical, easy-going manner, his lumberjack shirts and his enthusiasm for foraging for wild foods and whittling hazel sticks, did he seem cut out to be the thrusting entrepreneur.

Indeed Carluccio might have languished in obscurity had it not been for a chance meeting with Terence Conran's sister Priscilla, who became his wife in 1981. It was she (with some early support from her brother) who nourished Carluccio's career and built a multi-million pound business around his name.

The fifth of six children of a stationmaster, Antonio Mario Gaetano Carluccio was born in 1937 at Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi coast. When he was about seven months old, the family moved to Castelnuovo Belbo, a small village in Piedmont. During the war the railway station was a crossing point for soldiers from both sides and as the youngest son of the stationmaster, Antonio was petted by both the partisans and the Wehrmacht.

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Antonio enjoyed fungi and truffle-hunting expeditions with his father but it was from his mother, "a wonderful cook, a real mamma", that he learned a love of good food cooked with simple ingredients.

The Germans, he recalled, would always turn up at the station around lunchtime to sample her cooking."Good" Germans, not the SS, he said. The partisans, on the other hand, made the family hand over one of their two pigs: "My father called up some butchers," he recalled, "and the waiting room of the station was turned into a slaughterhouse, and they killed the pig there and then – I heard the screams. I went to bed, and in the morning there were only sausages left."

After the war, the family moved again to Borgofranco d'Ivrea, near the Aosta Valley where, in 1947, his younger brother Enrico was born.

Antonio Carluccio
Antonio Carluccio Photo: Supplied

As the nearest in age, Antonio had special responsibility for his little brother, of whom he became particularly fond. But in 1960 the 13-year-old Enrico went swimming in a lake with some friends too soon after lunch, got into difficulties and drowned. 

Antonio was working as a technician for Olivetti at that time, and was called in by one of the directors, who told him simply that one of the family had met with an accident. The discovery that it was his beloved baby brother devastated Antonio. He sat up with the body all night as it lay in its open coffin and immediately after the funeral he decided to leave Italy and start a new life abroad.

He became a wine merchant, first in Germany, then, after a brief first marriage to a German woman called Gerda, moved to Austria and finally, in 1975, to Britain, where he contracted a second marriage to Francesca, which lasted just six months.

In 1980 a friend on his way to visit Priscilla Conran at the Conran shop in South Kensington bumped into Carluccio and brought him along. She had just divorced her first husband, an architect with whom she had three teenage children. But she and Carluccio hit it off and soon became engaged.

Shortly after their marriage the following year they went to Sardinia on holiday with Priscilla's brother, Terence, and his then wife Caroline. Each man took turns to make dinner and Terence discovered that Carluccio, although untrained, was an excellent chef. So Conran suggested he take over the running of the French restaurant he owned in Neal Street.

Carluccio set about turning the restaurant into an upmarket Italian eatery specialising in mushrooms and truffles, and in 1989 he bought the restaurant outright. Jamie Oliver had his first kitchen job there. At the same time, Carluccio began to appear on the BBC's Food and Drink program and published the first of a series of cookery books, An Invitation to Italian Cooking, in 1986.

In 1991 he and Priscilla bought the shop next door and turned it into a delicatessen. Then Priscilla set about creating a Carluccio's brand, importing and selling rice, pasta, oil, and Italian specialities of all sorts – usually at a substantial mark-up. Within a few years the range – no doubt boosted by the 1996 television series Antonio Carluccio's Italian Feasts – was being sold in 130 outlets and had a mail-order catalogue.

In 1999 she turned her attention to building a chain of 25 cafe/delis, Carluccio Caffes, which eventually became the sole outlets for Carluccio products. By 2005 they were serving some 60,000 customers a week.

In 2008, it was reported that Carluccio had stabbed himself in the chest. He was taken to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and later discharged. He later claimed it had been an accident, but in his memoirs, A Recipe for Life (2012) he admitted a history of depression and revealed that the "accident" had been a suicide attempt, one of several over the years, which had been interrupted by his personal assistant.

At the time, his marriage to Priscilla was on the point of collapse, and in his memoirs Carluccio claimed that she had visited him in hospital to tell him he would "never be able to return home, the marriage was over".

They divorced in 2011 and in his later years he lived with Sabine, an archaeologist more than 20 years his junior, with whom he bonded over a shared love of mushrooms.

Although he never wanted to return to live in Italy, in 1998 Italy's ambassador to Britain proposed Carluccio for one of Italy's highest honours, Commendatore dell' Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana.

The Daily Telegraph