I grew up in Torre del Greco, near Naples, and my summers were spent on the Amalfi coast. At the time, people were talking about how beautiful the island of Sardinia was supposed to be, but it wasn’t really a big holiday destination back in the late 1970s and 1980s. Still, it stuck in my mind and was always somewhere I wanted to visit. It was 2004 when I finally booked a trip there – I’d been living in London for nearly 10 years by this point and my TV career was just beginning to take off. I needed a break, so my wife Jessica and I flew out there with our two-year-old son, Luciano, for two weeks.
We flew into Olbia and took a taxi to Cannigione, where we’d booked a three-bedroom villa with a swimming pool. There was a gorgeous beach not far from us and lots of restaurants in the town, which is where I got my first taste of Sardinian cuisine.
What shocked me was the variety of foods on the menu – everything from wild boar ragù to lobster spaghetti. I hadn’t experienced this anywhere else in Italy, where the dishes are mostly dictated by the region. In the mountainous north, it’s all about meat, whereas in the south people mostly eat fish and vegetables. Sardinia, though, benefits from both the coast and the mountains – which are only half an hour away from one another – so you can appreciate all the flavours of Italy in one place. From a chef’s point of view, it was heaven! I also vividly remember the Thursday food market, where they sold anything you can think of – vegetables, truffles, rabbit, mussels and smoked salmon. It was the first market I’d visited where you could buy everything you needed. It was a revelation.
One day, we took the 20-minute ferry ride over to the Maddalena Islands – if Sardinia was like the Caribbean, then this was like the Maldives! The beaches had powder-soft sand and it felt sleepy and undiscovered. I remember the little colourful houses, the people on the street selling clams and the children playing football on the streets. It was the kind of place where people leave their front doors open.
I’d fallen completely under the island’s spell and spent the entire trip saying to Jessica “I think we should move here”, so on the last day of the holiday, we walked into an estate agency and started looking at properties. Within four months of returning home from that trip we had bought our first place there, a three-bedroom villa in Pittulongu. And for the past 17 years, my family and I have been dividing our time between Sardinia and London, spending six months there in the summer and six months back in the UK in the winter.
We’ve moved since then and now have a villa called Isla D’Acampo in Telti, in the mountains, and have a big swimming pool, a basketball court, a lake and vineyards, where I make my own wine for my restaurants in the UK. Three years ago, the house next door to us came up for sale and I bought it, and we now have no neighbours for miles – they may as well call it Gino Mountain! I’m currently turning that property into a stable, so that I can breed horses.
Suffice to say, visiting Sardinia all those years ago completely changed my life. Not only is this beautiful island my home now, but the food that I experienced here influenced my own approach to cooking. In my restaurants, I’ve always offered a Sardinian-style menu, where you can eat everything from meatballs to lamb stews and beef casserole.
I went back to Cannigione with my wife a few weeks ago and it hasn’t changed at all. It even had the same bars and restaurants we had visited on that first trip. What would have happened if we’d never visited? I don’t really want to think about that, because I’m so happy and my life is balanced now. It felt like that trip was meant to be; that I discovered a little slice of paradise.
Interview by Kirsty Nutkins