Restaurateur and television presenter

Born: April 19 1937;

Died: November 8 2017

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ANTONIO Carluccio, who has died aged 80, was a cookery writer, restaurateur and unlikely television personality who was the foremost ambassador for Italian cuisine, and in particular the slow food movement, in the UK.

His restaurant chain, Carluccio’s, which now operates from around 80 UK locations – including two in Glasgow, one in Aberdeen and one due to open in Edinburgh next year – could have been accused of the crime he (and his co-author Gennaro Contaldo) identified in their book and TV series Two Greedy Italians. That is, of repackaging Italian peasant cooking, the cucina povera of pasta, polenta, pizza, bean and offal dishes, and offering it “on the tables of the rich… at inflated prices in expensive restaurants”.

Certainly, Carluccio’s Caffè, as the first one had been modestly named, had grown into a chain that went public in 1995 and was sold in 2010 for around £90 million. But there was an authenticity and quality to Carluccio’s menu (and to the produce in the delicatessens attached) that usually justified the bill – slightly higher than most high street chains, but much cheaper than restaurants ambitious for Michelin stars.

On television, Carluccio was a natural; he had none of the artificial mannerisms of the professional presenter, but instead conveyed his genuine warmth and enthusiasm for his subject, and was a model of clarity and concision when demonstrating the method for a particular dish. Nor had he any patience with innovation; he clung fast to the notion that cooking was a craft, and that while art should strive for originality, craft must always be the same.

The distinction made on Two Greedy Italians was that Contaldo was Southern (and a devout Catholic), while Carluccio was a sceptical Piedmontese. In fact, Antonio Carluccio was born at Vietri sul Mare on the Amalfi coast in Campania, just west of Salerno and south of Naples, on April 19 1937, the fifth of six children to Giovanni, the town’s stationmaster, and his wife Maria.

His father came from a bookbinding family based at Benevento, north-east of Naples, but had married into a railway family (his wife’s father was a line controller) at a time when trains were thought the coming thing. When Antonio was seven months old the family upped sticks for Castelnuovo Belbo in the Piedmont, south-east of Turin, though he always thought of himself as spiritually a southern Italian.

The primary culinary distinction of the Val d’Aosta, an area known to the indiscriminate chiefly as a skiing destination, is its emphasis on game, polenta, potatoes and, above all, mushrooms. Foraging for the last became one of young Antonio’s abiding passions.

After school, Carluccio spent a year doing his national service in the Italian Navy, based on Sardinia, and then returned to the north to train as a reporter on the Gazzetta del Popolo in Turin, before moving to a job on La Stampa. But he found it difficult to settle and took a job as a repairman and sales rep for Olivetti, the great typewriter manufacturers, then one of Italy’s major manufacturing companies.

When he was 23, Carluccio was profoundly affected by the death, in a swimming accident, of his 13-year-old brother Enrico. “We never got over it,” he said. “My mother especially.” Though he was sceptical about all religion, he maintained a special contempt for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the group his mother joined after the tragedy. “They tricked her into thinking she would see him again if she joined them.”

But Carluccio himself never quite recovered, and had significant periods of depression for the rest of his life. In 2008, he plunged a knife into his chest – something at first said to be an accident, but which prompted him to check into The Priory for psychiatric treatment; he later admitted it had been an act of self-harm.

The initial impact of Enrico’s death was that Antonio moved to Vienna to pursue a girlfriend called Inge and to study languages. At first he was still working for Olivetti, but he gradually drifted into the wine trade. He spent 13 years based in Germany, where he married his first wife in 1968, dealing in wine and commercial property in Italy and Ibiza.

After his divorce in 1975, he moved to London, where he sold wine to the stereotypical (and in his view, dreadful) trattorie then popular, and gained some familiarity with the restaurant trade. He had a brief second marriage in 1978, and then, in 1980, met Priscilla Conran, creative director of the Conran group and younger sister of the entrepreneur Sir Terence Conran, whom he married.

Carluccio had never heard of the family, but their notorious expertise in design, marketing and food were to transform his life. First, he was encouraged to enter the Sunday Times Cook of the Year competition for 1981, in which he was a finalist. He then became manager of his brother-in-law’s Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, at exactly the moment the area was becoming fashionable.

Having transformed its menu by offering genuine traditional Italian food (especially foraged wild mushrooms, a task which he eventually handed over to Contaldo, as he became busier) and trained the young Jamie Oliver, he became the owner in 1989. Two years later, he and Priscilla opened a food shop next door. The combination was a winner, and there were soon a couple of dozen Carluccio Caffès across southern England.

Carluccio also became a regular on television, at first on the BBC’s Food and Drink, and then with Italian Feast (1996) and Southern Italian Feast; he also began to churn out cookbooks (he wrote more than 20 in all). His books on mushrooms were especially good.

Soon he was widely seen as the principal ambassador for Italian food in the UK and further afield; he was a consultant to the Taj hotel group and made frequent forays to Australia, where he found a thriving expatriate community of Italian food entrepreneurs. His watchword when it came to cooking was “minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour”.

He had, however, mixed feelings about his restaurant chain after he sold it (though he returned as a consultant a couple of years later). “The management would like hundreds of them, but how do you keep the quality up?” he said. He was also depressed when changes to the lease led to the closure of his flagship restaurant at Neal Street, and the breakdown of his third marriage at around the same time.

He soldiered on, though, and patched up a long-standing falling-out with Contaldo; as Two Greedy Italians (an obvious attempt by the BBC to repeat the success of Two Fat Ladies), they were a great hit. In 1998 he became a Commendatore of the Italian Order of Merit; in 2007, he was appointed OBE.

In person, Carluccio was gregarious, ebullient and enthusiastic. “I would go to great lengths, often at my most distressed, to keep how I was feeling from those around me, telling jokes and playing the convivial host when I felt quite desperate inside,” he admitted in his memoir, A Recipe for Life (2012).

Asked by the food writer James Steen what he would choose for his last meal, he opted for spaghettini with cherry tomatoes and basil, ragù of lights and other offal with rice, and a white peach picked directly from the tree. “Then I would bite into it and – whoosh! – the taste would take me straight back to my childhood.”