Paolo – the new chapters in my life after I cheated death
Ireland's favourite food critic on his novel that's been eight years in the making
What becomes of Michelin-star restaurants once they close their doors for the last time? In the case of Paolo Tullio's Armstrong's Barn – which held the coveted accolade for two years at the end of the 1970s – it morphs into a recording studio for Zig and Zag.
"Remember them?" he says of the children's television puppets. "They were down here. And so was Antonio Breschi, who is one of Italy's foremost classical musicians and, as it turns out, a great cook.
"Once it was obvious that Armstrong's Barn [sited in the village of Annamoe, Co Wicklow, where Tullio has lived for years] was no longer sustainable due to the recession and the fallout from Hurricane Charlie, we had to do something to make money."
The popular restaurant critic with the Irish Independent's Weekend magazine has reinvented himself countless times. "You can't sit still. If one thing doesn't work out for whatever reason, you've got to try something else."
His latest "something else" is a new novel inspired by his parents' early life in Italy. Longing and Belonging is a love letter to a bygone existence and it offers a compelling meditation on the emigrant experience.
"It's a subject I know something about. I've always felt a bit rootless. This," he says, waving his arm towards the expanse of eye-catching Wicklow hillside outside his kitchen window, "really does feel like home."
The book took him seven years to write and 12 months to finesse.
"The writer's block was intense. Once I'd reached the half-way point I knew I'd get it finished, but up to that stage it had been touch and go."
As readers of his restaurant column will agree, Tullio is an engaging raconteur whose interests are wide-ranging. He is just as enthused talking about the 250 apple trees he planted last year or the outdoor pizza oven he is having built as he is about his literary endeavours.
His great love is people. He adored being front of house at Armstrong's Barn, although he would man the kitchen on the quieter evenings when his chef-friend Humphrey Weightman was away.
"Food is only one aspect of a restaurant, albeit an important one," he says. "The service and welcome you receive, and the people you dine with, play a huge part in making a meal memorable for all the right reasons.
"You'd be surprised by the amount of times I still encounter bad service when I go to restaurants. The problem is, nobody considers waiting tables to be a profession here – it's just a stepping stone to a different job."
He spent his formative years in the UK and the family moved to Ireland when he was 18 to open restaurants here. He studied English and philosophy at Trinity College and met some of his closest friends there, including future U2 manager Paul McGuinness and Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan. It was at TCD where he would meet his wife Susan Morley. The couple, now divorced, have two children – Rocco and Isabella.
Susan's sister, Diane, is married to Chris de Burgh and it was Paolo who introduced the two. "Chris sung at our wedding and," he says, chuckling, "he insisted on singing 'Patricia the Stripper' despite the fact that it's one of the few songs of his that I really detest."
The renowned director John Boorman is a close friend and lives – separated by a river, once accessible by stepping stones – in the next field. The two took to having increasingly lavish parties to mark the summer solstice each year and, some time ago, Boorman invited a trio of A-list talent to Tullio's back yard: Jack Nicholson, Michael Douglas and Mick Jagger.
"We haven't had a party on the solstice since then," Tullio says. "How could you possibly top those three?"
A previous party was almost as notable: with the alcohol flowing freely, he recalls several guests thinking it was a clever idea to jump over the bonfire they had built. "Neil Jordan tried it, but failed to clear it. In his haste to make sure he wasn't on fire he pounded at his clothes, sending sparks all over this elaborate white dress that Jerry Hall was wearing. She took it very well because I think she was trying to get Neil to cast her in a film he was making, but I don't think he ever did."
Tullio nabbed a small part as an Italian ice-cream seller in Jordan's The Butcher Boy – "they really cast me against type", he deadpans – and has appeared in two of Boorman's more recent films, The Tailor of Panama and The Tiger's Tail.
"I've been very, very lucky in life," he says. "I've been fortunate in that I've been good at a number of things without being great at any of them. What do they say? Jack of all trades ... "
Yet, his contentment would be challenged last year when he stared death in the face. He credits his partner, Marian, with saving his life on two counts. As a result of her persistence, he underwent medical tests that diagnosed what his doctor described as a "cardiac event" and acute kidney failure. The former necessitated a stent; the latter requires him to undergo dialysis treatment three times a week.
"It's three hours at a time," he says, resignedly. "I was lucky today in that I feel asleep right at the beginning and the nurse had to wake me at the end. If only they were all like that."
He will face dialysis for the rest of his life unless a donor organ is found. "Rocco volunteered his kidney, but as the problem is most likely to be hereditary, I told him he was best to hold on to it."
The treatment means he has to cut back significantly on his liquid intake, so he has to carefully ration his love of wine and coffee.
Tullio is 63 now and admits to having spent a large chunk of his 50s worried about his health. "My father died of a heart attack at 56, but he had become a really big man," he says, spreading his arms wide. "So it was on the cards. I would look at the headstones of the male members of the family and see that they had all died young.
"I was really thrown by my father's death. I thought, 'who do I turn to for advice now?'"
His mother is still alive. "She's 92 and lives in a retirement home. She still smokes – like me, she can't get enough of the cigarettes."
During the course of our long conversation, Tullio smokes rollie after rollie with considerable relish. "I suppose if I gave these up – or gave them up earlier in life – I might live a bit longer. But what's the point of being cautious all your life and denying yourself this and that in order to get a few years beyond, say, 85 when there's not a whole amount you can do any more?"
Tullio cheerfully admits to loving the good things in life. He talks passionately about the Hungarian dessert wine Tokaji Essencia, the proper way to make basil pesto – "mortar and pestle, rather than food processor and lots of extra virgin olive oil" – and the shaky kitchen table that dates back to the time of William IV.
He has few regrets. "I never really considered getting back into the restaurant business when Armstrong's Barn went," he says."You have to remember, it's a really tough life with terribly long unsociable hours. I have regard for those who try it and I suppose I am that bit more tolerant than other critics when I go to a restaurant.
"I'm always struck by the amount of emails I get from readers who say to me that they had a truly terrible meal in such and such a place and that I should go there immediately to review it. I just don't get that mindset – why would I want to go out of my way to eat a bad meal? I see the job as giving people a guide to good places to go and there really are some fantastic places to eat throughout the country that won't break the bank."
He stops to pour a glass of a 1994 Chilean Merlot. "When I first came to Ireland, the only place you'd find olive oil was in a pharmacy. It was seen as a cure for earache. How times have changed."
Longing and Belonging can be bought online at createspace.com as an e-book or paperback