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Gennaro’s Italian Year of Passione!

Now that’s got your attention! Gennaro’s Italian Year and Passione are the titles of Gennaro Contaldo’s first two books. But this is an article about a lovely man and his food.

Born on the Amalfi coast in the small village of Minori, Gennaro developed a love of food while hunting with his dad and granddad and collecting herbs with his mum. At only ten years old he began helping out in local restaurants. By the time he left Italy he had worked for more than 20 chefs!

I asked Gennaro if his mum was a good cook and which meal was his childhood favourite?

“Although the chief cook in the house was my father, my mother was also a good cook and I always associate her with comfort cooking. She somehow always knew what to make me when I was feeling sad, or the weather had turned cold or hot or if I was unwell. One of my favourite dishes was steamed meatballs, which she usually cooked when I was recovering from a childhood ailment. She would make sure the beef or pork was finely minced and mixed with a little garlic and parsley, form them into ball shapes and steam them. She said they would make me feel strong again and at the same time they were delicate to digest as they had been steamed.”

Gennaro Contaldo interviewThe young Contaldo moved to London in 1969, and after dipping a toe into the Italian antiques business, he returned to his first love of cooking. Most Londoners in those days had no idea about real Italian food. Most of us had spaghetti from a tin. The only olive oil around was in those small bottles you found in the chemists, the oil being used for skin complaints and for softening ear wax. But England did have fantastic ingredients to encourage the young man to stay.

Gennaro agrees that things have changed on the food front in the UK since he arrived.

“I love to try all sorts of foods and London is paradise for eating foods from around the world, not only for its excellent restaurants but also the variety of shops and markets which sell exotic produce which you can bring home and try out! My favourite non-Italian meal is good old-fashioned English food, which unfortunately you don't see much of in this country! England has excellent quality meat, game, poultry, vegetables and I love the traditional dishes. My favourite is Lancashire Hot Pot!”

Gennaro worked as a chef in various restaurants including Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant. (This is where he met Jamie Oliver. A bit of luck for both of them! Did Gennaro teach the boy to swear?)

In 1999, the restaurant Passione opened to high acclaim. Gennaro is the co-owner and executive chef. Passione, the book, is devoted to the Italian cooking of the Amalfi coast and won Gourmand World Cookbook - Best Italian Cuisine Book 2003. The restaurant was voted Best Italian Restaurant 2005 by the Tio Pepe Restaurant Awards.

Gennaro is renowned for his association with Jamie, who was his protégé. Such is his regard for the young chap that perhaps Jamie should be called Gennaro’s Essex son rather than he being described as Jamie’s London dad. He has featured in many of Jamie's shows as well as in numerous other TV food shows.

Does Gennaro have time to cook at home?

“I usually cook at the weekend or for special occasions such as Christmas or when friends come home. The last time I cooked for friends was a couple of weeks ago. It was rather impromptu, so I made pizza in our wood-fired oven in the garden. With the leftover dough I made a few loaves of bread, which I shared with the neighbours!” Wish I lived next door!

I think that the charm of this man is his obvious passion for Italian food. He almost drifts off in a dream when describing a slow-cooked cut of meat, simmered for 2 hours. Traditionally the resulting sauce would be served with pasta (“Now, not too much sauce and the pasta should be al dente.”), and the meat with any vegetables, after the pasta.

Don’t offer Gennaro out-of-season fruit and veg. He uses fresh produce with low air miles and enjoys the change of ingredients that the seasons bring. I guess that’s what we should all be doing and it’s good to find a restaurateur who takes a pride in the quality of seasonal produce.

How about the next generation? Will they continue in the restaurant business?

“My twin daughters, Chloe and Olivia, age four and a half, love to cook, much to Liz's (my partner) annoyance as she is trying to prepare the evening meal! So, they cook when I do - from an early age they loved to make gnocchi and get their fingers into the bread dough! If they want to get into the restaurant business when they grow up, my advice to them would be to be careful as it is long hours on your feet, but if that is what they are happy to do, then I will be happy too!”

You can’t help but notice the wicked glint in the eye. He has a natural playfulness that is endearing to the viewer. He stole the scene on a Jamie Oliver episode when he set light to the tea towel! He takes his cooking seriously but why shouldn’t we all have some fun with it?

Passione, 10 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2LT

Passione, Headline Book Publishing, 2005
Gennaro's Italian Year, Headline Book Publishing, 2006

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