They're famously devoted to their food, yet their obesity rate is a fraction of Ireland or Britian's. Chef Gino D'Acampo tells Rob Sharp how to shed the pounds – and still enjoy la dolce vita
It's a nation that has generated a constellation of culinary superstars – Antonio Carluccio, Giorgio Locatelli, Jamie Oliver's mentor Gennaro Contaldo – among whose number you wouldn't necessarily count I'm a Celebrity winner Gino D'Acampo. The 33-year-old Neapolitan as a younger man spent a period residing at Her Majesty's Pleasure for burglary, and has recently returned to Britain from the New South Wales jungle where, among other experiments in fine dining, he was charged by local police for cruelty, specifically for killing and eating a rat.
But what D'Acampo does share with his countrymen is an evangelical zeal for his homeland's culinary traditions. Rodents aside, D'Acampo enjoys vaunting his Italian obsession with fresh, market-bought ingredients, a lack of fatty creams and oils in their food, and moderately sized portions. Combine this with the Italian- American diaspora of pizzas piled high with barbecued chicken and pineapple, and you've got a chasm running through the culinary landscape: on the one hand, the British, with their relatively low life expectancy and cholesterol-rich lifestyles; on the other, the Italians.
Figures from a 2008 report by the European Heart Network reveal that despite the older profile of Italy's population, Italians are far less likely to die from cancer and heart problems than their British counterparts. Almost a quarter of British adults are obese. Compare that with just 8 per cent of Italians.
The solution, says the jungle-dweller, is his new book, The Italian Diet, published this month. It isn't a manual for how to shrink your trouser size in a month. Instead, those who adhere to its short list of recipes can hope to shed around a pound a week – the plus point being that they stand a chance of not putting it back on.
It's not a question of cutting down on meals and hitting the gym seven times a week; it's more about adhering to the Italian "way of life". While the book suggests that living like an Italian – enjoying the experience of filling your shopping bag with the best ingredients, for example – will revolutionise your life, benefits are more likely to be seen in D'Acampo's replacement of traditional ingredients, such as the mascarpone cheese in tiramisu, with lower-fat alternatives such as greek yogurt. In that recipe, for example, he hopes to halve our calorie intake, from around 400 down to 200 per serving.
"I am not going to promise, like every other author of a diet book, that if you use it you'll lose three or four kilos," says D'Acampo. "It doesn't work like that. That's because your standard diet book makes you lose weight and then as soon as you've finished the diet you pile it back on. My book is about habits. It's about a lifestyle and applying that to how we eat food. My book is about cutting out the cream and the butter. It's all about the way you shop."
The reasons that Italians – we're generally talking olive-skinned southerners here – are so healthy is that their traditional eating habits tend to match many of the guidelines for healthy eating laid down by experts. Portion sizes tend to be piccolo and the diet traditionally features lots of fresh, natural foods and few processed ones. The diet's core clings to the consumption of fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, rice, beans, and nuts; fish is preferred to meat (Naples is known for its seafood, for example). Olive oil is the main fat consumed, and is also used as a salad dressing. Salt is used, but herbs, garlic and black pepper are more usual. Small amounts of red wine are drunk with meals. Meat, eggs and full-fat dairy products are usually only eaten in small amounts.
Listening to that, is it any wonder that Italians rear generations of Renaissance men, while your average Brit thinks home cooking is the name of a cable TV channel? "You'll never see an Italian go on a diet," says D'Acampo. "I'm not saying you don't find obese people in Italy as well. Generally, Italians just eat better. They're not doing that thing where they're eating two or three hundred grams of pasta. They're never eating a carbonara sauce with a tub of cream in it."
D'Acampo was born into a poor Neapolitan family in 1976. He says he was inspired to cook by his grandfather, who was the head chef for a cruise-liner company: "He had a big farm out in the countryside, with 10 children, so in that sense it was very traditional."
"Everyone used to go to my grandfather's house, it was the main focal point for all of the family's activities. He kept animals, chickens, pigs, but mainly he focused on pizza. He loved making it. I remember he had a beautiful, round, wooden pizza oven which he'd use to make fresh bread and pizzas."
He says the family would only ever eat Neapolitan pizza, garnished with a thin sprinkling of mozzarella. At the most, he says, they might garnish their pizzas with garlic, or some olives. They would source their own ham, and sometimes marinate their own olives. Naples is famed for its mozzarella – so no problems there either.
"The only way you could replicate the way I grew up, with no access to supermarkets or petrol stations, would be to live on a farm in the middle of Wales," he adds.
Aged 15, the cook joined Naples' Luigi de Medici Catering College. He toured across various European kitchens, spending spells at Perignon, a restaurant in Nice, and Sylvester Stallone's Mambo King in Marbella before humping his kit over to London, where he would eventually top the bill at The Orchard in Belsize Park, before setting up his own food distribution company, Bonta Italia.
D'Acampo spent two years in prison from 1998 for burgling the musician Paul Young's house – something he maintains he has always been very open about.
The Italian Diet is his third cookery book; he is hoping to capitalise on the new-found fame bestowed by I'm a Celebrity, saying, "What's amazing is the number of kids who recognise me. The question I ask is, how come they were allowed to stay up late to watch me?" as I'm a Celebrity was broadcast at 9pm on ITV1 – although there's his future cook book readership right there.
"I was asked to do a third book," he continues. "I thought to myself – am I going to do a normal Italian cook book, or shall I do something a bit different? A lot of people come to you and say it would be good to have a book with really good ingredients but where you don't pile on the pounds.
"I thought this was a great idea. I did a lot of research around the book shops and found that a lot of what was out there was very boring. I thought, if I was on a diet I would never buy something so conventional."
He spent two weeks touring Italy's various trattorie, asking people how they cooked, so that when he returned he could pull together a comprehensive, day-by-day eating plan, working with the dietician Juliette Kellow.
A typical day on the D'Acampo regime might see a yogurt, a fruit and a low-fat breakfast bar for brekkie (133 calories); light spicy meatballs for lunch (439 calories); and then baked stuffed onions with sun-dried tomatoes (160 calories) followed by fresh sardines baked with lemon and capers (233 calories).
So why not try it? After all, when Italians do try to diet, they are often more successful than other nations. According to a 2005 study by global research company GfK, just 26 per cent of Italian women had started a diet in the previous two years, compared with 37 per cent of British women. Crucially, 34 per cent of the Italian women lost all the weight they set out to lose (or more). Just 29 per cent of British women achieved that.
"Many people in Britain eat their meals in front of the TV," says D'Acampo. In Italy, the dining table is often in the kitchen itself. Italians are generally "more comfortable entering the kitchen than the average British person."
That's why "the average Italian guy or girl would be a better cook, assuming they had grown up in Italy," he concludes. "They would have seen their mother, grandmother, father cooking. Everybody in Italy cooks. They have a better knowledge of the kitchen – that's the place around which the whole of Italian society revolves."
Chicken breast with parmesan, tomatoes and mozzarella
Petto di pollo alla parmigiana
349 calories, 16.7g fat, 6g saturates, 6.7g sugars, 1g salt
3 aubergines, about 200g each, cut lengthways into 0.5cm slices
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoons skimmed milk
60g freshly grated parmesan
60g breadcrumbs, toasted
6 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 100g each
1 large onion, finely sliced
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
100g mozzarella, drained and sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4 and preheat the grill to hot. Pour 2 litres of water in a large saucepan with 1 teaspoon salt and bring to the boil.
Cook the aubergines in the boiling water for two minutes and drain. Allow to cool slightly, then pat dry with kitchen paper and place on a baking tray. Brush with a little oil and cook under a hot grill for two minutes on each side until browned.
Mix the egg and milk together. Mix the parmesan and breadcrumbs together. Dip each chicken breast in the egg mixture and then coat with the parmesan breadcrumbs.
Heat two tablespoons of the olive oil in a large frying pan and cook the coated breasts for two minutes on each side until coloured. Drain on kitchen paper.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a medium saucepan and fry the onion for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Tip in the tomatoes with the oregano and season with salt and pepper. Stir everything together and continue to cook for a further five minutes.
Spoon the tomato mixture into a 2-litre shallow, ovenproof dish and place the chicken breasts on top. Cover with overlapping layers of aubergine and mozzarella and then top with any remaining parmesan breadcrumbs. Cook, uncovered, in the centre of the oven for 35 minutes until golden brown. Serve hot.
Ricotta and vanilla tiramisu
Tiramisu alla ricotta
292 calories, 14.7g fat, 5g saturates, 23.5g sugars, 0.2g salt
250g fat-free Greek yogurt
80g caster sugar
6 tablespoons crushed hazelnuts
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
200ml cold, strong coffee
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
24 savoiardi (sponge finger biscuits)
Cocoa powder, for dusting
Mix the ricotta cheese with the yogurt and sugar in a large bowl. Add the hazelnuts and vanilla extract and stir until well combined. Pour the cold coffee into a small bowl and mix in the cinnamon.
Quickly dip half the sponge fingers in the coffee and then place in the base of a rectangular serving dish (30 x 22cm, and at least 5cm deep). Spread half of the ricotta mixture on top. Repeat the process with the rest of the ingredients.
Cover the dish with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes. Just before serving, dust the top with the cocoa powder.
'The Italian Diet' by Gino D'Acampo, with an introduction by Juliette Kellow, is published by Kyle Cathie, £12.99