Luigi Veronelli

Subversive wine and food critic

It's difficult to believe now, but as late as the mid-1980s Italy was not known for its restaurants. Travellers considered themselves lucky to get an edible antipasto, a plate of not-overcooked pasta, and a main course of unadorned meat, washed down with thin red wine. Eating-places boasted that they served "home cooking", and you were fortunate indeed if you ever ate a meal out that came anywhere near the quality of the cooking and food enjoyed in any of Italy's lowest- income households. One of the people who helped change all that (and Italy's gastronomic image) was Luigi Veronelli.

Luigi Veronelli, wine and food critic, journalist and publisher: born Milan 2 February 1926; married (three daughters); died Bergamo, Italy 29 November 2004.

It's difficult to believe now, but as late as the mid-1980s Italy was not known for its restaurants. Travellers considered themselves lucky to get an edible antipasto, a plate of not-overcooked pasta, and a main course of unadorned meat, washed down with thin red wine. Eating-places boasted that they served "home cooking", and you were fortunate indeed if you ever ate a meal out that came anywhere near the quality of the cooking and food enjoyed in any of Italy's lowest- income households. One of the people who helped change all that (and Italy's gastronomic image) was Luigi Veronelli.

Though he was chiefly known as a wine critic, in the late 1980s he began publishing I Ristoranti di Veronelli, a guide to Italy's restaurants, osterie and trattorie. It was revolutionary, as befitted the man the Communist newspaper Liberazione described as an "anarcho-oenologue and theorist of peasant-hood".

His guide not only ranked the food with chefs' toques (as the equivalents of the Michelin Guide's stars), and bottles to mark good wine-lists, but also remarked explicitly on each establishment's offerings of salumi, cheese and olive oil, even to the point of singling out especially good producers, and advising would-be diners as to which dishes and wine to order. There is still no restaurant guide to France, Britain or anywhere else that goes into that level of detail.

Coinciding with the nouvelle cuisine movement in France, Veronelli's guide singled out for praise a few Italian eating-places that had some of the hallmarks of that movement, especially paying a very un-Italian attention to presentation of food on the plate - such as Ristorante Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence and Ristorante Gualtiero Marchesi in Milan. While this didn't quite amount to an advocacy of nuova cucina, it was refreshing, even bracing, in the unchanging Italian restaurant scene. Veronelli's guide had the great merit of viewing this scene with Italian eyes - at that time Michelin's own guide to Italy was francocentric and frankly useless.

Born in Milan in 1926, Veronelli read Classics and philosophy at university. He was politically active in the 1950s, on the Left, of course, and from 1956 edited three different periodicals, each a leader in its field. In I Problemi del Socialismo he adhered to the line propounded by Lelio Basso (the journalist and activist who was a member of Bertrand Russell's 1970s "tribunals", and founder of the "Lelio Basso International Foundation for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples"). In Il Pensiero he expounded the Kantian "neo-transcendentalism" of the philosopher Giovanni Emanuele Bariè. And in Il Gastronomo Veronelli he explored "philosophical gastronomy".

This last led him to collaborate with Luigi Carnacina, whose massive cookery book was published in English in 1968 as Great Italian Cooking, and who started the professional school for hoteliers and chefs in Bardolino that bears his name. Their association lasted 10 years, and Carnacina not only taught Veronelli about food and wine, but how to attract publicity. Veronelli himself became a master of polemic, and his provocative, pugnacious style stood him in good stead when he began campaigning for high standards in agriculture and winemaking.

Veronelli had a very attractive subversive streak. In 1979 he presented his Viaggio Sentimentale nell'Italia dei Vini on Italy's third TV channel, in the course of which he was adjudged guilty of "instigating rebellion" by provoking Piedmontese winemakers to rebel against the heavy bureaucratic regulation of their industry (the rules were less stringent elsewhere in the country). He was sentenced to six months in prison for this, but the sentence was suspended. This was his second jail sentence: he had received another, for three months, in 1957, for having published Storie, Racconti e Raccontini by the "Marchese De Sade".

I met Veronelli, whom I remember as slim and genial, in 1985, when we were guests in Hong Kong for the Mandarin Hotel's spectacular 21st birthday party, an historic recreation of a three-day Imperial Banquet. My notes for 14 February say that Robert Carrier and I were wondering aloud "whether the audience is capable of appreciating these exquisite historical recreations" of "the most refined and aristocratic dishes in the Chinese culinary repertory"? The Spanish guest, I remarked,

has hardly ever tasted Chinese food, and even the Italian, Luigi Veronelli, whom I know to have a great deal of knowledge and superb taste, is innocent of any previous acquaintance with Chinese nosh. Wouldn't it have been more sensible to have started them with a hearty bowl of noodles before dropping them into the superior shark's fin soup?

Veronelli contributed to a wide range of papers and magazines (his recipes are the basis of Waverley Root's 1974 book The Best of Italian Cooking), and founded a considerable publishing empire (see www.veronelli.com). He made a genuine contribution to reducing the chaos endemic in the Italian wine industry, where even now the very best wines are those that break the official rules about which grape varieties may be used in which regions.

Paul Levy



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