Aldo Zilli - why I quit the London restaurant scene
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 June 2016
hen I came to this country four decades ago, I didn't cope at all!' he says. 'The only place you could buy olive oil was in the chemist!'
Zilli started his career in the UK in a hotel in Surrey, where he was horrified by the food they served their guests (‘a sort of French, Italian menu’) and still shudders at the memories of what the staff were expected to eat. He didn’t stick around for long, moving swiftly to a local Italian restaurant, which failed to meet his standards too, prompting a move to London.
‘Back then, Soho was very Italian, like a little Italian village, with the same attitude and with delis that had been there decades – and still are. But the restaurants still didn’t serve true Italian food!
‘I say you should serve what people don’t know they want to eat! I brought in risotto, sun dried tomatoes, rocket…I broke the rules.’
Being a rebel clearly worked out for him, in 1988 he opened his award-winning restaurant Signor Zilli in London’s West-End. A string of restaurants followed, all of which he sold in 2013, citing ‘greedy landlords’ as his reason for quitting the London restaurant scene.
‘I wanted to have a life, to see my children grow up. I got bored of working for the landlords. I am still doing food: I cook and I create, but now I have none of the painful admin behind running restaurants - it’s a difficult life.’
Zilli joined forces with the award-winning San Carlo group, as chef consigliere, providing advice and expertise alongside devising new seasonal menus for their restaurants. He also launched Zilli Media, a PR and Marketing Consultancy for bars and restaurants.
But this wonderfully warm, chatty, funny (and little bit flirty) man isn’t the type to step away from the public for long, and this summer can be found at Foodies Festivals across the UK, including the Tatton event, this July.
‘I shall be going on tour!’ he laughs, ‘Oh my god! I got involved because I liked so much the founders, Sue and Jeremy. Food festivals are a new thing here, but in Italy they’ve happened forever. They are more themed there, with each area celebrating its local speciality, here it’s an international mix – and you can see 5,000 people a day! I could spend all my time in an office, writing recipe books [he has published ten] and going on TV. But I really like people!’
This summer Zilli will be launching his new street-food range, Piadinas, inspired by a trip to Bologna, in Italy.
‘They are like flat bread, but not. And not a wrap, either. Sort of a cross between the two; you grill them and fill them with fresh, delicious ingredients. I have mine made in Bologna, by a passionate chef.
‘Fillings include my most interesting recipe – Porcetta, a slow roast pork, and Burrata, a cheese from Puglia, and squacquerone [a fresh and tangy cream cheese] from Bologna. Sacla are working with me on this tour, as I am using many of their wonderful ingredients in my piadina: sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, truffle pesto… Oh, and I shall be doing a chocolate one too.’
My mouth is watering and Zilli laughs, ‘Come!’ he says. ‘Come along and try it out at Tatton!’
Oh, just try and stop me.
Foodies Festival Tatton, 15 – 17 July
foodiesfestival.com | 0844 995 1111