Prudence Wade speaks to the Italian chef about his favourite food, and why he’s dedicated an entire cookbook to it.
As Jamie Oliver’s right-hand man, we’ve come to know Gennaro Contaldo rather intimately: Exuberant, passionate – and as Italian as pasta alla puttanesca.
Within minutes of meeting Contaldo, it becomes clear this isn’t an act he puts on for the camera. The 70-year-old chef is exactly how he is on-screen: Warm, full of energy, and able to talk about food for hours. He’s even set up a little bit of home in his London back yard – a rustic outdoor Italian kitchen, complete with a wood-burning oven and vines growing around it. Unfortunately, East London grapes don’t make the best wine, so he settles for using them for vinegar instead.
Contaldo has lived in England for 50 years now, but his love of Italian cuisine is as strong as ever; his latest cooking book is dedicated entirely to the country’s national dish – pasta. He’s written or contributed to more than 10 books now, so it was perhaps high time he produced one that’s all about his favourite food.
Pasta is love
Contaldo can’t help but wax lyrical about pasta. For him, it’s so much more than just food – it represents home, family and love. “To me, the only way to remind me of childhood is my mother, my father and my sister making fresh pasta,” he says wistfully. “It’s very romantic. Fresh pasta for me means warmness and family, like a wood fired oven when it’s cold.”
This gets him talking about Minori, the town on the Italian Amalfi Coast where he grew up. “I remember there used to be pastificio [pasta factory] – there was only one in my home town, it was on the promenade by the sea,” Contaldo reminisces.
He thinks back to how this pastificio used to stand two poles on the promenade, with long strings of spaghetti hanging between them to dry – which is pretty much the most stereotypical Italian scene you can imagine.
Contaldo can’t even remember how he learned to make pasta, because it’s been around him his whole life. “I could almost have been a spaghetti!” he says, exploding with laughter.
With such fond memories of home-made pasta growing up, it felt natural that Contaldo would carry this love into his adult life – and he wants other people to share in this warmth. The process, he says, is “nice if you have a family, a boyfriend, a lover, a mother, a father, children – you come home, it takes a minute to mix it, then you roll it out”.
At its core, Contaldo thinks pasta is a “symbol of love”, but it helps that “also it tastes good”, he adds with his signature chuckle.
Pasta is Italy
Much of the book explores the history of pasta, and the different recipes from various regions in Italy. “The Italians are very proud because everyone makes their own version of pasta, but at the end it’s all the same,” says Contaldo.
For him, it was particularly important to pay tribute to the different regions and histories of each dish. “History is culture,” Contaldo explains. “And you have to respect the traditions and the cultures of people.
“When you make fresh pasta, it’s in celebration,” he adds. “Even breaking one egg is a celebration.”
It’s been a long time since he lived in Italy, so Contaldo uses cooking to connect him with his homeland. “When you grow up, move to different countries perhaps, when you fancy a bit of fresh pasta, you know how to make it,” he says.
He has a huge amount of national pride in pasta, which becomes abundantly clear when he starts reeling off long lists of all the different varieties there are – something which lasts a very long time and he does more than once during our conversation.
“I discover a new way of making pasta almost every month,” he adds, without even a hint of boastfulness.
Pasta is easy
Much of the book is dedicated to dried pasta – something which Contaldo loves, as long as you make sure to buy a proper Italian product. He advises you make sure the packet says “durum wheat, semolina and water, because most of the pasta you buy from the supermarket is just semolina and water”.
But what he really wants to do is encourage people to make their own. For some reason, whipping up fresh pasta has the reputation of being labour-intensive and tricky, which couldn’t be further from the truth. More than once, Contaldo reels off the basic pasta recipe (which is literally just eggs and flour), proclaiming how “easy” it is – and not to mention cheap.
This doesn’t mean people don’t mess it up, but Contaldo is clear about the most common mistakes to watch out for. “Overcooked pasta,” he says with a grimace. “Sometimes it’s so much overcooked that it’s like glue. Another mistake is putting too much sauce on it – 150g of sauce is enough for 100g of pasta.”
There’s a reason why pasta should be cooked al dente too, which in Italian means ‘to the tooth’. If it’s slightly under-cooked, Contaldo says: “You chew longer, and when you chew longer it tastes better and has more flavour. It also helps with your digestion.”
Contaldo’s final word on all things pasta? “Pasta doesn’t make you fat,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s the sauce you put on top.”
Gennaro’s Pasta Perfecto! by Gennaro Contaldo, photography by David Loftus, is published by Pavilion Books, priced £18.99. Available now.