We catch up with the Italian cooking legend that is Gennaro Contaldo, where we discover some of his favourite ingredients, and why he’s the proud UK brand ambassador for Parmigiano Reggiano.
Describing himself as a cook rather than a chef, Gennaro is the first to admit he’s drawn to simple comfort food, over more experimental fusion cuisine. “I’m a cook – my cooking is very down to earth and homely, so I never refer to myself as a chef.”
It’s little wonder that he has such a keen interest in food today, “Growing up food was all around me – everyone cooked at home. My father and grandfather taught me how to hunt, my mother took me out foraging for mushrooms and wild herbs, and I often went out with the local fishermen.” In fact, his first job was helping out in the local restaurant aged just ten, an experience he says he loved!
So really it’s no wonder that he’s partnered with Parmigiano Reggiano, a traditional Italian ingredient that’s as versatile as it is delicious.
“I love adding shavings to salads to add extra flavour, and of course, I use it in almost all my pasta dishes as well as with vegetables, meat, and fish.”
His top tip? “Never get rid of the Parmigiano Reggiano rind! It can be used in so many ways as there is no wax covering the outside, so don’t be shy to use it to flavour soups, stews, and ragu. I also enjoy chunks of Parmigiano Reggiano on its own as a snack, or as part of a cheese board with a glass of red wine.”
With Parmigiano Reggiano available in different ages, each with its own unique flavour and aroma, it can be tricky to know which one to use. Gennaro prefers using the young 12-month old to add flavour to summer salads and cold dishes. “However, I would have to say that the 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano is the one I most commonly use as it strikes the right balance of flavours to enhance many traditional Italian dishes. Of course, you can also get older ages of Parmigiano Reggiano as there is actually no maximum ageing period. A 21-year-old wheel was recently auctioned off – incredible!” The older the cheese, the more I would recommend just enjoying chunks on its own chunking, or paired with some wine. That’s a true Italian style aperitivo!”
Aside from Parmigiano Reggiano, tell us what other ingredients you use most?
I use a variety of dried pasta shapes, risotto rice, stock pots, pancetta, tomatoes, and garlic. Extra virgin olive oil is a basic that I couldn’t do without and at the luxury end of the spectrum, it’s got to be white truffle (but I only have a small one once a year at Xmas as a treat – more than this would be too indulgent and expensive!!)
What food do you most miss from home?
Wonderful, sweet Amalfi lemons as well as fresh anchovies. I can sometimes get the lemons here, but fresh anchovies are harder. So, one of the dishes I enjoy when I go home is Acciughe alla Tortiera – a light simple dish of fresh anchovies cooked in a pan with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, parsley, and lemon juice. Simple but utterly delicious.
What would you cook for us if you were trying to impress?
Freshly made tagliatelle with a slow-cooked tomato ragu with beef involtini filled with garlic, parsley, and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. I would serve the tagliatelle with the tomato sauce as a first course followed by the beef involtini with a green salad. This shows the best of my family’s home cooking.
Wow, sounds good to us. Are there any celebrities that you’d like to cook for?
I would love to cook for Sofia Loren – she comes from Naples so we share a similar food background and I know she loves to cook and eat so it would be amazing to cook some traditional Neapolitan dishes for her.
What is your favourite Italian restaurant here in London and what do you order?
It’s got to be 500 in Archway. Its small menu is perfectly executed by Mario the chef who
makes everything fresh each day, including focaccia and pasta. I tend to have whatever special pasta and fish they have on offer on the day.
Do you have any kitchen horror stories you care to share?
Once I was on a live show and I was whisking egg whites. To show they were stiff, I tipped the bowl upside down over my head – and guess what, the eggs whites weren’t quite ready and dripped all over my head. I’ve never used that trick again!
How often do you work on new recipes, and do you have anything in the pipeline we should look out for?
I’ve been working on some very exciting recipes with Parmigiano Reggiano, which will be released on my YouTube channel very soon, so keep an eye out over the next few months!
Thanks Gennaro, we will!
For more information on Parmigiano Reggiano, head to www.parmigianoreggiano.com