Gino D'Acampo is aghast. You would think he’d been asked to dish up a no-frills ready meal for the Queen. In fact, it’s the mere idea of a meat feast pizza – that late-night takeaway favourite – that is upsetting him. “Meat feast?” he almost spits. “What is that?
“You guys have completely bastardised the pizza by putting chicken wings and pineapples and weird kebabs on it.” As far as the celebrity chef is concerned, a pizza means a margherita: “Tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil. Any other pizza should be banned.”
Gino shops for tuna at Europe's largest covered market in Cagliaria Sardinia
D’Acampo is a proud Neopolitan – hence the passion for pizza – but in his latest series he is no less effusive when describing the delights of Sardinia and Sicily. Filming marked his first visit to the motherland of the Mafia, but Sardinia is his bolthole of choice: for the past three years, he’s spent six months a year in his villa in Olbia, in the north east of the island.
Unsurprisingly, D’Acampo is adamant that the best way to discover Italy is through its cuisine. “If you’re going to Rome, have a nice spaghetti carbonara,” he advises. “You will see straight away the difference between what you get here and what you get in Italy.
"Then go down to Napoli and have buffalo mozzarella from a mozzarella shop. Don’t put it on a plate, don’t put any oil on it, no basil; eat it like an apple. You will see all the milk running down your arm” – he rolls up his sleeves to demonstrate – “because that’s what a proper mozzarella is all about.”
Sardinia’s culinary culture is divided into food from the sea and the land, thanks to over 1,000 miles of coastline whose seas are harvested by fisherman, and mountains that boast even more shepherds.
Sciacca, a historic fishing port on the southern coast of Sicily
On Sicily, he finds island dishes flavoured by millennia of conquerors: the Greeks brought wine, figs and olives; the Moors introduced citrus fruits, spices and saffron; and the Spanish served up tomatoes and chocolate.
This is D’Acampo’s third series exploring Italy’s charms, but he says there are many more of his country’s kitchens to explore. “I want to go to the regions nobody knows – Calabria, Umbria, Abruzzo. Each region is like a completely different country. They have their own way of doing pasta, sauces, everything.”
If anyone can sell the charms of Italy, it’s this chef. “It’s the home of the best food in the world,” he insists in that irresistible accent, barely flattened by his years in Britain. “The wine is excellent. The weather between June and September is amazing. The beaches are incredible. It’s a very old country with lots of tradition, loads of history. You never get bored.”
Below, Gino explains what to eat where...
Street food in Sicily
Snack on the go “Palermo is famous for its street food. It’s cheap, fast and tasty. Vendors use seasonal produce cooked to order,” says Gino. Look out for chickpea fritters, panelle, and stuffed rice balls, arancini, which are a favourite with students.
Drink dessert The Greeks introduced wine to Sicily in 800 BC, but marsala wine was created by Englishman John Woodhouse in 1770, who then exported this sweet, fortified wine all over Europe. “It’s got a sweet, delicate flavour.”
Regional sauces at Capo market, Palermo, Sicily
Make a stop at a pastry shop “Sicilian sweet treats owe their origins to Arab and African influences. So expect candied fruits, pistachios and dates as well as spices like cinnamon and cloves.” You must try cassata, a sponge cake soaked in rum, and cannoli, fine pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta cheese.
Enjoy a palate-cleanser Another legacy of the Arabs, granita is an ice-drink traditionally flavoured with citrus fruits, almonds or coffee and often enjoyed at breakfast. It’s said that Francis Ford Coppola enjoyed 14 granitas a day when directing The Godfather on the island. “Depending on how it’s made and which part of the island you are on, granita is either smooth or grainy, but it’s always refreshing.”
Country cooking in Sardinia
Eat like a farmer “Nestling in the hills all over this beautiful island are working farms with restaurants known as agriturismo. Each one can specialise in just one product, but all of them serve only what they have grown or reared themselves.”
Feast on pork... “Sardinia is famous for its pork products: sausages, salami, cured ham. It’s so important that the national dish is suckling pig. It’s like the ultimate hog roast and eaten on special occasions. Traditionally, it’s served on a bed of myrtle leaves, which grow wild all over the island."
Gino enjoys cafe culture in Alghero, Sardinia
...washed down with Cannonau “A small glass of this strong wine is drunk at almost every meal – some argue it keeps heart disease down on the island. You cannot call it Cannonau if it’s not at least 14 per cent. It’s good that it’s strong, so it can take on all these flavours.”
Try a taste of Spain! “Originally a fishing village, Alghero, in the north west of the island, is one of Sardinia’s best-preserved medieval towns. What makes it fascinating is its mix of Italian and Catalan cultures, a hangover from when it was conquered by the King of Spain more than six centuries ago. The Spanish nicknamed it Little Barcelona.”
Gino's Italian Escape: Islands in the Sun repeats from Friday 8th July on ITV at 8pm