Jan meets the Carluccios as they prepare to sell up...
To understand Antonio Carluccio, you've got to understand his wife, Priscilla, and to understand Priscilla, you need to know that she is Terence Conran's little sister. We know that the Conrans are born retailers, good at shops and design in the way that the Hiltons were good at hotels. You can hardly take three steps in any British city without a Conran trying to sell you a dress or a pie or a sofa; or a cup of coffee, a coffee table and the coffee table book to go on it. They've got everything covered, in a tasteful cotton check that's wipe-clean and washable, available at a shop near you today.
Although the family dabble in all markets, from oysters to handbags, Priscilla is the current Conran to watch, as the Carluccio's empire which she built up with her mushroom-loving husband is besieged by potential buyers during a strategic review by the Close Brothers bank. The group consists of 21 Carluccio's shop and café outlets selling a range of pricey Carluccio branded products, with two more sites set to open before Christmas. The chain has been so successful that there is even a possibility of taking the business public.
"We can't talk to you about anything like that,'' says Priscilla, who is crisp and rather forbidding, despite her girlish giggles, and takes exception to the word "chain'' being applied to her business.
"We don't have a chain mentality, so we prefer to call it a series,'' she says, and reveals that her ambition for her brand is boundless. Will it be as big as McDonald's? Antonio looks like he's going to throw up, while Priscilla's face twists with displeasure.
"McDonald's? What a word to use! Could you use something else, please? I would rather say that Carluccio's could be as big as Gap. That is a better analogy.''
"Eet es just wandaful,'' adds Antonio, in his richly accented voice, "with wandaful, fresh and original food in good ambience with good service...''
Yes, yes, of course it is, but the latest business manoeuvres are much more exciting. Is the potential sale going to make them millionaires?
"Ha,'' says Antonio. "I called the bank the other day and said, where are our millions? Something will come out, we don't know how much, I don't know if it will be millions or whatever, but we invest heavy in the...''
"The important thing to remember,'' says Priscilla, brusquely interrupting her husband, "is that we are not the kind of people who are in this just for the money. If we were, a picture of Antonio's face would have been on jars in supermarkets years ago.
"We started Carluccio's because we are passionate about what we do.''
But are they really?
When Priscilla first clapped eyes on shaggy old Antonio, he was but a simple wine merchant flogging Italian wines around the London restaurant circuit. When they married in 1981, not many would have seen the business potential in a portly Italian who cuts his own hair - he's like a sheep, she says - and whittles hazel sticks and collect mushrooms in his spare time, but somehow she did. She knows what consumers want, you see.
"I don't wave a magic wand, but I do know what people want to buy. It sounds awfully arrogant, but I do,'' she says, while it is not fanciful to suggest that if her husband had been Japanese, she would now be in charge of a noodle bar empire.
"Yes, and if he was called Antoine instead of Antonio, they probably would be French cafés,'' she admits.
Very Heavy, Very Humble...
A talented but untrained chef, Carluccio began running the Neal Street restaurant in Covent Garden for Terence Conran in the same year he married Priscilla. Turning it into a grand Italian eaterie specialising in mushrooms and truffles was the first step in his becoming a household name, and he bought the restaurant outright a few years later. Meanwhile, Priscilla set about nourishing his career and creating a Carluccio's brand. In 1991, they bought the shop next door, and turned it into Carluccio's deli, as her husband began fronting television cookery series and publishing cookery books.
His onscreen persona is folksy and humble, a woodsman in his checked shirts rumbling on about mushrooms and Italy, and how British people need to be educated about food, unlike every snaggle-toothed peasant he comes across in his homeland.
"I tell you a story,'' he tells me, and chunders through a hoary old Carluccio anecdote about four workmen in overalls ordering truffles for their lunch.
Really, stuff like this does get tiresome. We all know about the excellence and seasonality of Italian food, but every time I go to Italy, the supermarkets there are full of the same old rubbish that they sell here, but we're always led to believe that every grotty little shepherd is dining like a king on heavenly risottos and garlic-infused baby lambs, while ignorant John Bull has to make do with boiled hoof and carrots because he knows no better. Good Spanish hams are superior to good Italian hams, but don't have the same international presence because the Italians market themselves so brilliantly. Look at Antonio Carluccio, who wastes no time in informing me that his grandchildren call him Grandpa Cep, a piece of information which makes my lunch lurch uncomfortably northwards.
Speaking of which, we meet the Carluccios in the basement of their flagship Neal Street restaurant, after eating in the dining room upstairs, an experience which was a whisker off being a total disgrace.
"You had lunch here today?'' shrieks Antonio. "How was it?'' Terrible, I say. The black truffle was tasteless and the pasta with it was too salty. I complained, but no one took any notice, and it wasn't taken off the bill.
"Black truffles are not white truffles,'' he says. I know that...
"They are not very tasty...''
Agreed, but even so...
"They are pure embellishment and they cost not very much. How much did you pay?'' £ 18, which is quite a lot.
"May I see the bill, please?'' says Antonio and charges upstairs like a bull, returning with a bottle of Tattinger champagne as a gift.
"I do this for everyone, not just because you are press,'' he says.
In the meantime, I notice that despite their "passion'' for food, the Carluccios can't find it in their hearts to say one good word about any other Italian restaurant in London - they shake their heads in disdain and say that they only eat Asian when they go out - Priscilla especially likes Yauatcha in Soho, while Antonio thinks it "too poncey'' - and in a newspaper article published last November, he stated that he buys salamis and hand-made Italian cheeses for his personal consumption from the Gastronomica stall at Borough Market. Why doesn't he buy them from Carluccio's if it's so wandaful?
Mrs Carluccio butts in to say that's "not true'' and that she doesn't have time to go to the market, while Mr Carluccio flounders and blusters. "You are a journalist,'' he pleads. "You know how these things are coming together.''
I certainly do. We discuss some produce that I purchased at a Carluccio's branch; a walnut bread that was dusty and dry and salami that was like an oily rag, while Antonio piles more and more gifts upon the table; beautifully wrapped cold cuts, breads from the restaurant upstairs, plus a freshly baked focaccia. I leave them all behind in the basement. Meantime, Antonio walks me to the door and explains that he is quite sad about the way mushrooms and truffles are going. He says that everyone is "jumping on the bandwagon'' while many of the restaurants selling truffles are "unscrupulous, it is a big cheat''. Recently, he even met a man who claimed to be a grower of wild mushrooms.
"Who is he, God?'' he snorts.
- This interview was first published in 2005. © Jan Moir