The Godfather


Antonio Carluccio has finally arrived in Newcastle. Liz Hands asks him, what took so long? 

Renowned for his larger-than-life screen persona and his shock of white hair, Antonia Carluccio is actually rather subdued when I catch up with him at the opening of the eponymous Carluccio’s on Newcastle’s Grey Street. 

At 76, the furrows in Carluccio’s expressive face appear to be ploughed deeper than in his BBC show Two Greedy Italians. A day of travel from London, photocalls and meeting the region’s foodies, media, and movers and shakers has clearly taken its toll.

Despite his obvious need for a nap, however, Carluccio is nothing less than charming as we settle down with a shot of espresso to talk about the latest restaurant in the Carluccio’s chain.

While the first Carluccio’s opened in London’s Covent Garden in 1999, there are now 85 restaurants in the empire – some as far afield as Dubai and Kuwait. But it has taken 14 years for Carluccio to feel the time was right to come to Newcastle.

“We don’t just take any place,” he says. “It has to guarantee a lively business. We’re open from 8am to 11pm seven days a week and it’s a big investment, with personnel costs. So there has to be that liveliness.

“But the fact we’re open so long means we can give food all the time, without limitation. I can’t abide it when you go somewhere and they say ‘no, you can’t have that now because it’s lunch’. If someone wants to come and have a coffee or a quick bite, that’s fine.

“We’re not some big organisation where we’ll just push 200 venues out there. It’s very organic. We open about five a year and it has to be because they’re in the right place and it’s the right time.”

The right place, as it turns out, is the former NatWest building, where the distinctive royal blue branding now shouts out that Carluccio has arrived. “It’s funny to think we bought a bank,” he says. “They tell me the safes are downstairs, so I said ‘that’s where we can keep the truffles’.”

And, the right time is during a burgeoning of Newcastle’s celebrity culinary scene. Last year, Marco Pierre White opened his Steakhouse at Hotel Indigo, while Carluccio’s former protégé Jamie Oliver is set to open a Jamie’s Italian in the revamped Monument Mall.

Carluccio has previously spoken about how, while chefs may copy food from other nations, it will never be as good as that prepared by someone from that country. But, he says he is “happy for Jamie Oliver, that he’s done so well,” adding, “there are customers for everyone.”

Born in Salerno, Carluccio came to the UK in 1975 to work as a wine merchant. He became the manager of Terence Conran’s Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden, before taking over as owner. It was here that Oliver began his professional career, before the restaurant closed in 2007.

Dubbed the Godfather of Italian food, Carluccio and his then wife Priscilla went on to open an Italian food shop before launching the restaurant venture and expanding the chain. The group was taken over by the Dubai-based Landmark group, with Carluccio’s valued at £90m. It means Carluccio has taken a back seat – a move that’s probably just as well when you consider how busy he is. Awarded the equivalent of a knighthood in Italy, along with the OBE for services to the food industry, he has written 13 books and appeared in TV shows including Antonio Carluccio’s Italian Feasts and Two Greedy Italians.

Despite having relinquished overall control, he is still heavily involved as a Carluccio’s menu consultant. “The dishes are mostly from my books,” he explains. “So, there’s lots to choose from. Sometimes, it’s impossible to put something on the menu because the ingredients are only available in Italy, but it’s getting easier as more authentic Italian ingredients are imported.”

Authentic, seasonal food which isn’t too fussy is Carluccio’s signature style. “I always say MOF – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.  Fussy food is just unnecessary. I think some chefs want to show off, but why complicate things that are good themselves already? Recently, I was offered oyster with chocolate. I mean come on, who wants that?”

Carluccio also places great importance on the Speciali di oggi, the specials board, which allows each restaurant in the chain to offer its own take on his cuisine. When we visit, the specials include lamb with caponata and risotto with zucchini and gorgonzola – both of which were slated in a regional newspaper review during opening week, though on opening night, we find the kitchen is clearly on fine form, serving up perfectly creamy, al dente mushroom risotto, prawns wrapped in Proscuitto and arancini di riso, moreish rice balls with basil and ragu. These are followed by bite-sized versions of the Torta di Limone and Torta di Frutta, with blackberries and mascarpone, all washed down with a delicate Prosecco.

Carluccio is clearly relishing taking centre stage, his energy levels buoyed by the party atmosphere. Outside, he is stopped by a couple who tell him they’ve been to the restaurant three nights running. “It’s beautiful when someone tells you how much they appreciate it,” he says. “People visit Carluccio’s in London and, when they come back, they say they’d like one here. Well, now they have one.”

Outwardly jolly, Carluccio has spent time battling personal demons. In 2008, he was admitted to the Priory clinic after stabbing himself in the chest with a kitchen knife in an incident which has variously been described as a suicide attempt and an accident. Wherever the truth lies, Carluccio makes a conscious effort to remain cheerful, even inviting fans to send jokes to him through his website. Indeed, during his opening night speech, he chooses to mark the occasion with one of his favourite jokes, a classic about a farmer and his sheep which we won’t repeat here.

Carluccio becomes most animated talking about his hobbies. Leaning on an ornate stick he has whittled himself, he beams with delight, saying: “I whittle all the time, it takes me around two to three days to finish something like this. I paint, I sculpt, I go foraging. I collect things. I’m never bored.”

Despite this, Carluccio won’t be disappearing from our TV screens or book shelves. “I work because I like to work,” he says. “It’s not for the money. I think when someone retires, they die, so I will keep on going.”

Carluccio’s, 89 Grey Street, Newcastle, NE1 6EG, Tel: 01912 302148

Sign up to our news
You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us.