Gennaro Contaldo on pasta, his boy Jamie Oliver and the joy of feeding people
With a new book out promising tasty Italian dishes in under 40 minutes, Gennaro Contaldo tells Ella Walker how important it is to cook for your family – and that there's no rivalry with Jamie
SPEND an hour with Gennaro Contaldo and you are guaranteed to be fed. First, it's a bowl of fresh spaghetti, twirled through with ragu, then, after explaining how he has unwaxed Amalfi lemons sent over from Italy once a month, the 69-year-old is leading the way to the kitchen.
He fries off sliced fresh chilli and garlic in butter and olive oil, chucks in the zest of a lemon and squeezes in the juice, adding hunks of butter as he goes, before 100g of al dente spaghetti is whirled in with a handful of chopped parsley leaves. It barely takes seven minutes from start to finish, and it's delicious and zingy with heat – it's a shame it's not in his new cookbook, Gennaro's Fast Cook Italian.
A collection of recipes that take fewer than 40 minutes to go from languishing in the fridge to animating your plate ("You don't have to be a slave on the cooking!"), the idea behind the book is to prove to people that it doesn't take much to put together a simple meal chock-full of flavour.
"You've got to have the essentials," says Contaldo, ticking off olive oil, garlic and chilli on his fingers, noting: "You can make a beautiful dish with just those ingredients and pasta – it's what Italian teenagers eat when they get in, especially at midnight, this is how it goes."
Combine those basics with whatever you've got kicking around in the fridge and you're sorted, he says. "A bit of bacon? Some eggs? Fantastic. You make a lovely carbonara." The book itself brims with easy salads, interesting but quick risottos (carrot and celeriac anyone?), straightforward desserts and, of course, pasta.
Contaldo doesn't eat pasta every day ("Just whenever I fancy") but his love for the stuff is deeply ingrained; he can't remember a time when he didn't just eat it, but also understand and know the feeling of making it from scratch, by hand.
"I've always made pasta – it's like swimming," he says. "I was born 30 metres from the sea. People say to me, 'Do you remember when you learn how to swim?' I don't – I always could! Why? Because it was there. Exactly the same with the pasta – it was there. You grow up seeing nonna, mama, auntie, sister, friend make pasta, it's like learning to talk – natural."
The cook and TV presenter grew up in Minori on the Amalfi Coast (hence his strong opinions on lemons), and his Italian accent hasn't been diluted by years working on the London restaurant scene, as owner of the now closed Passione, and at the late Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant (with whom he was one of the BBC's Two Greedy Italians), where Contaldo first met and began mentoring a young Jamie Oliver.
Oliver has his own Italian cookbook – Jamie Cooks Italy – coming out later this summer. Is there any semblance of competition or rivalry between the two of them? "Course not – I am in his new book," says Contaldo fiercely. "Jamie and me, he's my boy – of course there's no competition, it's never existed."
In fact, the book saw the duo tour Italy together, learning the skills of Italian nonnas. "You're always learning," says Contaldo thoughtfully. "There's no end." It explains why he's passionate about getting people to cook, and also why you're unlikely to find him ordering take-out, not when pizza is so "easy to make".
"People should cook a little more, they should make their own," he says. "If you do cook every day – I know is hard – but once you feed your family, you give them good food, you give them a lotta love. Once they grow up, they start to cook as well – they see, they remember.
"Being a cook is not easy, we all complain, like anything else," admits Contaldo, who, at almost 70, still has no plans to hang up his apron. "Sometimes we do unbelievable hours; you don't mind doing it because you make people happy."
Food for him is intrinsic to joy, and to taking care of people. "We have to eat three times a day," he says. "Let's do it properly, together – then it become a party; then it become family; then it become love."
:: Gennaro Contaldo's Fast Cook Italian by Gennaro Contaldo, photography by Kim Lightbody, is published by Pavilion Books, priced £20. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.
PEA AND BURRATA SALAD
175g fresh peas, podded weight
Leaves of 2 gem lettuce hearts
250g burrata, or buffalo mozzarella
For the crostini:
50g sunflower seeds
A handful of fresh basil leaves
1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
A pinch of sea salt
A pinch of dried chilli flakes
4 slices of good-quality crusty, seeded wholemeal bread, toasted
For the dressing:
2tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1tbsp lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, add the peas and cook for about two minutes, until tender but not overcooked. Drain, rinse under cold running water and drain well.
Meanwhile, prepare the crostini. Place the sunflower seeds, basil leaves and olive oil in a blender or food processor and whiz until you obtain a smooth consistency. Combine with the salt and chilli flakes. Toast the bread and spread with the sunflower seed paste. Set aside.
Combine the dressing ingredients. Arrange the watercress and gem lettuce leaves on a large serving plate, sprinkle over the cooked peas, and pour over half of the dressing. Gently break up the burrata or mozzarella and scatter over the greens. Drizzle with the remaining dressing and serve with the crostini on the side.
2 mackerel (about 240g), heads removed (if desired) and cleaned
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 rosemary sprigs
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 organic unwaxed lemons, finely sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C. Rinse the mackerel under cold running water, then pat dry well with paper towels. Place the fish on a large piece of parchment paper, which is in turn placed on top of a large piece of good-quality aluminium foil (you can place the fish on individual sheets or all in one package).
Place on a baking tray. Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the mackerel, including inside the cavity. Place a rosemary sprig inside each cavity, together with the garlic and half of the lemon slices. Top the mackerel with the remaining lemon slices, drizzle with olive oil, then wrap tightly in the foil and bake in the hot oven for 20 minutes.
To serve, place the whole parcel in the middle of the table and tuck in.
FILLED SOFT AMARETTI
Makes 12-24 (depending on size)
20g raw pistachios
75g cup ricotta
75g cup mascarpone
15g caster sugar
3tsp Marsala wine, plus extra for brushing
20-24 soft amaretti biscuits
A little icing sugar, for dusting
Toast the pistachios in a dry frying pan set over a medium-high heat for a couple of minutes, until lightly toasted. Remove and set aside. Meanwhile, whisk together the ricotta, mascarpone, sugar and Marsala wine in a bowl, until light and fluffy. Finely chop the pistachios and stir in. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge.
Using a really good, sharp knife, slice the amaretti horizontally in half, so you end up with a bottom and top of each little cake, keeping any crumbs. Brush each slice with a little Marsala. Take the creamy mixture out of the fridge and stir in the amaretti crumbs. Place a dollop of the cream on the bottom slice of the amaretti and sandwich together with the top half. Arrange on a plate and dust with icing sugar, to serve.