Gino D’Acampo has brought his own stylish taste and ambience of Italy to Harrogate - and he has a word or two for the food critics. Stephanie Smith went to meet him.
“Harrogate is very Italian,” says Gino D’Acampo, decisively. “I think it must be the old buildings. Or the people. It feels very different. It doesn’t feel like you are in the UK. When you see women walking around, they don’t just walk, it’s like a catwalk. You know what I mean?”
I don’t really know what he means but, as a Harrogate woman, I happily acknowledge this little taste of the D’Acampo charm. There’s more, too. “Everybody is so glamorous, like Rome or the island of Capri … one of these places in Italy,” he says, eyes glinting with what I suspect might be a little touch of mischief.
“I came here the first time 15 years ago and I promised myself that one day I would open a restaurant in Harrogate,” Gino says. “It was just a holiday.”
We’re in the private dining room of the newly opened Harrogate branch of Gino D’Acampo – My Restaurant, surrounded by Gino’s cookbooks. “All my books are personally signed by me,” he says. “As you can see, we’ve got a thousand books here that I have to do within the next hour.”
Harrogate is the fourth of Gino’s restaurants to open, following Euston, Manchester and Leeds branches. One has just also opened in Liverpool, one will open inside Next in Hull later this year, and in 2018 in Sheffield.
Coincidentally, Sheffield has been Gino’s middle name since 2015, when he changed it by deed poll on the Celebrity Juice TV show. He sighs. “I lost a bet during a show and because, when I do that show, I am usually on my third or fourth pint of Guinness, I agreed to the bet, which I lost, and I had to change my name, which is now Gino Sheffield D’Acampo.
“Keith Lemon, who is the host of Celebrity Juice, is constantly saying my accent is fake, I’m not really Italian and I’m from Sheffield. Some people come up to me and say: ‘Well, we really didn’t think you had an Italian accent. We thought it was an act.’”
And now it’s on his passport. “Only an idiot will do that,” he says. “My wife said: ‘As long as I don’t have to change my name. I don’t want to be called Jessica Sheffield D’Acampo.’ The kids went ‘no way’.”
Gino, 41, and his wife of 15 years, Jessica, have three children, and the Italian attitude that the whole family is welcome is reflected in the stylishly fun and welcoming ambience of the Harrogate restaurant. A little piece of Italy that Gino wants to sprinkle into the lives of Yorkshire folk.
“My restaurant is proper Italian food like it should be. Italian drinks like it should be,” he says. “But more than that, it’s about an Italian lifestyle. When you come to my restaurants, you have a grocery store where you can buy ingredients that I get from Italy, that I use in my restaurants, so people can use them at home.”
All the restaurants’ ingredients are from Italy, apart from fresh, local catches such as salmon and salmon mussels. He says: “The food is where you’re going to say, I see what you’re doing here.”
Gino’s is not the first Italian- themed, celebrity chef restaurant in Harrogate; there’s already a Carluccios and a Jamie’s Italian. Indeed, the town is now jam-packed, many would argue, with both chain and independent restaurants, enough to cater for all tastes and pockets (with The Ivy on the way). But Gino is keen to point out that his Parliament Street restaurant brings something new to the table. “My association is not just a name. I check every single thing. I’m in the restaurants all the time. I check the ingredients, I check the food, check with the chef. My input is daily.
“I have a games room because I want people to relax. We have a beautiful terrace with a Prosecco Bar. It’s about the Italian lifestyle, so when you come, you can spend pretty much all day here, and that is something that nobody else does.
“My restaurant is packed today. If I had another six or seven tables, I would make more money, but I don’t want to do that. It’s not all about the money. I want my guests to have the best experience ever.”
Some professional food critics, inevitably, don’t approve of chain restaurants, especially celebrity ones. Gino is not impressed: “It’s one person’s opinion. I don’t really buy into that, I don’t really care about it,” he says. “Let’s be honest, 99.9 per cent of these food critics are people that wish they could cook, they wish that they could own a restaurant, so really they are nothing more than bitter people trying to ruin somebody else’s reputation.”
Everyone can be a food critic now, he points out, and food standards have grown phenomenally over the last 20 years. “And yet we still have the food critics who criticise.
“Who cares? I don’t see anyone opening a newspaper and saying, ‘Oh, this food critic doesn’t like it, I’m not going to go.’”
Back in Naples, Gino was brought up with cooking at his grandfather’s knee (he was a chef, too). When he arrived in the UK 22 years ago, Italian restaurants were still mainly of the family-owned, check tablecloth, spaghetti bolognaise variety. “Now can push Italian food and give people more experience, because now people travel more,” he says.
These days, Gino spends his time between his Hertfordshire home and Sardinia, with frequent visits back to Naples to see his mum. Then there are his travels throughout Italy for the ITV series Gino’s Italian Escape, with Gino’s Italian Coastal Escape, coming soon.
“With food, you always learn something new,” he says. “There is always a new ingredient, a new way to do certain things, and that keeps me going.”