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Gino D’Acampo shares his top tips for Italian cooking

HE HAS cooked naked on TV and got into a spot of trouble when he killed and cooked a rat in the jungle during I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here — though he still went on to be crowned king of the jungle.

But while super chef Gino D’Acampo has long lauded the cuisine of his native land, he admits he never expected to find cowboys in Italy. Yet on a recent, seven-week tour of the Italian coast for his new eight-part ITV series, the Naples-born 41-year-old found himself training with the butteri of Tuscany, learning to throw a rope, ride fast and drive cattle on a mountain.

‘I could ride a little. But every little boy wants to be a cowboy and so did I,’ he tells me with a laugh. ‘I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do this. I really never thought I’d get the chance to do it in Italy.’

It was one of a number of memorable experiences he found in his homeland, as he travelled off the beaten track in the Aeolian Islands, Calabria, Campania and Capri, Lazio and Tuscany to source recipes for his new book Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape.

He went fishing off the Aeolian Islands, revisited the island of Elba where he’d had his first family camping holiday and fell in love with Ana Maria (a buffalo) and her beautiful mozzarella.

But his greatest triumph was securing a secret recipe for sweet, soft, butter rolls with vanilla that he had tried to acquire for more than 20 years.

‘When I was about 18 and I lived in my little town near Naples, there was this baker who made the most wonderful soft vanilla rolls,’ he says. ‘I always used to ask how he made them.

‘He said: “One day I’ll tell you.” I knew he never would. But about a year ago I met his son and we became friends. His father had died and he had left him a little book of recipes. I asked if I could see it, and there was the recipe I wanted.’ It now features in his latest book.

D’Acampo rose to fame after moving to London in 1995 to work in The Orchard Restaurant, Hampstead and the Cambio Restaurant in Guildford, Surrey. Today he is the resident chef on ITV’s This Morning, has a chain of restaurants called My Pasta Bar and has presented four series of Gino’s Italian Escape on ITV.

Despite the frenetic schedule (or perhaps because of it) he spends six months of the year in Sardinia with his wife Jessica, and their boys Luciano, 15, Rocco, 12 and five-year-old daughter Mia. ‘I am living the dream,’ he admits. ‘I am lucky I can do this and make money.’

D’Acampo fell in love with cooking after watching his grandfather run a restaurant in Sardinia. ‘I remember watching him cook and thinking that this makes him happy and it makes other people happy,’ he says. ‘That’s where my passion started. I still follow his advice, which was, “keep it simple — minimum effort, maximum satisfaction”. That’s been my motto.’

The British, he says, could learn a lesson or two from how the Italians approach cooking and food.

‘People panic in the kitchen and they don’t need to. The first thing to do is to open a nice bottle of wine and relax. There’s no rush. If it’s going to be late, it’s going to be a little late. Enjoy the moment.’

Series 5 of Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape is available on ITV Hub and airs Wednesdays at 8pm; Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape by Gino D’Acampo (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

Gino’s top tips

■ Always buy dry pasta, not fresh. Ninety per cent of Italians use dried pasta as it keeps its al dente shape more perfectly when cooked.

■ Even if you’re buying tinned tomatoes, buy the best. The difference between a 30p tin and a 20p tin will be a flavour that’s ten times better.

The proof is in the cooking…

Gino serves meals from his recipe books in his restaurants, so I decided to make his ricotta gnocchi with red peppers, courgettes, butter and sage (see recipe below) just like he does, from scratch.

Serve: Gino’s ricotta gnocchi with red peppers, courgettes, butter and sage

The result was quite impressive, though my gnocchi was a little on the large size (and maybe slightly dry) and I could have created deeper grooves with the fork prongs to soak up the sauce. If I’d followed Gino’s advice and used freshly grated Parmesan, rather than the grated product I bought at the supermarket, I think the meal would also have had more zing.

But I thought I hadn’t done badly at all. Creating the gnocchi from scratch, cooking and preparing and adding the sauce, took around 45 minutes. But how would my newly-discovered skills as a domestic goddess compare to eating Gino’s version at his restaurant? When I ate the same meal at Gino’s newly opened My Restaurant in Camden, I wasn’t too disheartened by my efforts. His gnocchi were rolled smaller and were lighter, fluffier and tastier than mine. But my sauce held up well, though his was a little spicier. If only I’d had Gino’s unique gin and tonic (served in all his restaurants), as the perfect aperitif to a wonderful meal.

Home made: Jo’s attempt at the ricotta gnocchi

Ricotta gnocchi with red peppers, courgettes, butter and sage

For the gnocchi

■ 400g ricotta cheese

■ 4 egg yolks

■ 60g grated Parmesan

■ 2 tsp salt

■ 1 tsp black pepper

■ ½ tsp grated nutmeg

■ 160g ‘00’ grade pasta flour

For the sauce

■ 150ml extra virgin olive oil

■ 2 medium courgettes, cut into 5mm cubes

■ 2 large red peppers, cut into 5mm cubes

■ 8 fresh sage leaves

■ 100g salted butter

■ 60g grated Parmesan

■ Salt and black pepper

1. Put the ricotta in a piece of muslin or a clean tea towel and place in a colander. Leave to drain overnight.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, egg yolks, Parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add the flour. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, mix together thoroughly.

3. Use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball and place on a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into four. Roll each piece into a long sausage shape, about 2.5cm thick. Use a sharp knife to cut into 2.5cm lengths. Dust with a little flour. Press each piece against the tines of a fork to create small grooves on one side. Place on a floured tray.

4. To make the sauce, heat the oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add the courgettes, red peppers and some salt and fry for about seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the shredded sage leaves and butter, stirring until the butter has melted and everything is well combined. Set aside.

5. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Drop the gnocchi into the boiling water and cook for about five minutes. Once they have floated to the surface, continue to cook for two further minutes. Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon and stir them into the sauce. Return the frying pan to the heat for one minute. Add some black pepper and sprinkle over the Parmesan.