It’s 3pm in Cafe Caldesi Marylebone and most of the lunchers have gone, replete with pasta and, hopefully, a Grappa, to sustain them through the rest of the working day. The staff have put the music up loud enough to power them through their afternoon tasks and at the back of the room, staring sepulchrally into his coffee, is owner Giancarlo Caldesi. His mobile is buzzing like a Vespa going up a steep hill but he ignores it.
Catching sight of me he jumps up and gives me his usual bear hug of welcome and animates as if a switch has been thrown. He now answers the phone, yells out’turn the music down!’ in Italian to the staff, and passes me a copy of his and wife Katie’s new book’The Amalfi Coast’.
The phone conversation in Italian is lively, so he moves away while I turn pages. I’m grateful that it’s post-lunch as only my sad wet a manger sandwich earlier is stopping me from making little noises of greed as I catch sight of some of the dishes inside. It may be blowing a freezing wind in London, but between the book’s covers the sun and sea of Amalfi are shining and the food looks simply fantastic.
A World Heritage site, the Amalfi coast will always be associated with the chic years that saw Bogart, Garbo and Loren basking on the beach and looking effortlessly cool in cafes. It’s a narrow strip of land, pinned between the coast and mountain, and the food reflects this.’It’s still home style cooking actually,’ says Giancarlo ending his phone call, ‘but since the 1950s it’s become lighter as the glamorous people started to demand healthier dishes featuring more lemons, fish and herbs.’
Ah yes, the famous Amalfi lemons Ã¢â‚¬Å“sfusato amalfitanoÃ¢â‚¬Â. Much larger than normal lemons and as bumpy faced as Ray Winstone, they make the famous Limoncello drink but also feature in many dishes. In the Caldesi’s book you’ll find a light lemon and prawn risotto, as well as lemon and ricotta filled ravioli in butter and mint sauce. You can feel the golden sunshine radiating off the page.
On the Caldesi’s travels along the winding roads of the Amalfi coast,’truly hair raising driving,’ recalls Giancarlo raising his eyebrows to emphasise the horror,’you just have to stop worrying and accept it’, they met producers and chefs generous with their time and found hidden restaurants with hidden gems on the menu.
Giancarlo’s finger snaps out to pause me as I browse in order that he can identify the people by name; a man with a lorry load of lemons and dried chillies, a nonna carrying armfuls of desserts, Giancarlo himself lapping up an ice cream in the company of some pretty girls.’I asked them if they’d mind being in a picture and they didn’t. Maybe the free ice cream helped,” he says with a boyish grin.
The Caldesi kids are in the book too, seen tucking into pizza, the famous Pizza al Metro (by the metre), as well as round ones topped with seafood. The book gives good instructions on making your own pizzas with a list of toppings so tempting you swear never to eat rubbishy takeaway pizza again.
Naturally there’s a large section on pasta, how to make it and how to bring it alive with both slow and fast cooked sauces. Anchovy pesto, ideally with anchovies ‘alici’ from the town of Cetara, will take just moments in a blender, but the salty kick of the fish with olives, nuts, capers and a teensy bit of dried chilli, is perfect for a livening mid-week supper dish.
Alternatively if you have the time, how about slow cooked beef and onions with wine? After eight hours the whole thing melts down to a savoury sweet combination and is poured onto pasta to be eaten with deep fried onion rings.
From Positano to Ravello, Katie collects the recipes and writes while Giancarlo adds his chef’s eye and experience and there are dishes for everyone; meat, fish and vegetables and all simple in principle, as long as you can get the same quality of ingredients.
Ã¢â‚¬ËœOur book isn’t just a journey of food it’s a journey of life, rereading it now a year after we went to Amalfi I remember not just the food but the wonderful people we met,’ says Giancarlo.’Katie does all the writing, I can’t spell I just cook, but it’s both our impressions that are recorded. We’re going back at Easter to give a copy of the book to all the people we featured as a thank you for the food and their stories.’
Good food, good stories. That could be engraved on Giancarlo’s gravestone. Katie and he have created a cookbook that warms the heart on even the coldest British day.
Try some of Caldesi’s Amalfi recipes