My Italian Country Childhood by Aldo Zilli

My Italian Country Childhood
by Aldo Zilli


A heart-warming story of a chef’s journey from the hills of Abruzzo to the heart of Soho. With endless enthusiasm, charm and good humour, Alduccio Zilli transformed the way London restaurants were run - and he soon had every major celebrity flocking to his doors. Along the way Zilli survived prison, divorce, health scares and financial collapse. 



This is a light-hearted read about the humble beginnings of Sig Zilli. Born the youngest of eight children to poor Italian farmers. The first few chapters detail the drudgery of life on a farm and the  arduous tasks which all the siblings had a duty to perform. Milking the cows, tending the pigs, the chickens and the backbreaking harvesting of olives, grapes and cherries. His mother started her daily chores at dawn, cooking and baking on a woodburning stove with no gas, electricity or running water. His earliest memories are of going to the well to fetch water for his mother and returning to see her smile and thank him. Although he did not know it at the time, his childhood was a valuable induction into self-sufficient living and a sustainable lifestyle. It was, however, in the kitchen watching his mother cook where he acquired the knowledge, the skill, the insight of true, simple Italian cooking.

Not surprisingly, at the tender age of sixteen, Aldo started forming an escape plan to leave the life he was born into, for something else. After a brief spell in Germany, he moved to London and served his apprenticeship, working his way up from pot washer to waiter and then to restaurant owner. There is some inevitable name-dropping in the book. How he bought caviar for George Michael, Freddie Mercury cooked some chips in the kitchen nearly setting the restaurant on fire. He was starstruck when he first met Madonna. The rich and famous flocked to Zilli’s restaurants, Kylie Minogue, Jack Nicolson, Naomi Campbell. If Sig Zilli thought he lived life in the fast lane, that was nothing compared to Chris Evans, his compadre and drinking buddy for a time. From the cast of East Enders to members of the Royal family, Zilli was in with the ‘in-crowd and determined to exploit it. His celebrity guests came not just to taste his delicious food but for the discretion they were awarded, away from paparazzi and the prying eyes of celebrity hunters.

Alduccio, the poor Italian boy morphed into Aldo, the restaurateur, celebrity chef, entrepreneur, creating a unique brand, The House of Zilli.



 Why I recommend this book

Only the first three chapters tell us about the boy Aldo, growing up on the farm. I would have liked more. I am less interested in the stories of celebrities who frequented his restaurants and more fascinated by the anecdotes of facing personal and professional challenges. For example, his encounters with the Maltese Mafia who operated in Soho and how he drew on his own experiences to bring the authentic flavour of Italian food into his London restaurants.  Aldo Zilli was the first London chef to put rocket and parma ham on a pizza or offer pizza topped with goats’ cheese and roasted vegetables.

There is no doubt that he was in the right place at the right time. London in the 1980s was ready to open its doors to innovative and creative chefs with dreams and ideas such as Aldo Zilli and Antonio Carlucci. Zilli’s menus were inventive and original. Using his instincts to work the flavours and combining his favourite childhood dishes with a British twist. Not only that, he redesigned his restaurants so that instead of the chefs being hidden and working on some subterranean level below the main dining room, he had an open kitchen on the same level as the restaurant. His diners could watch chefs at work, throwing pizza dough into the air, stretching it into the perfect shape and cooking it in a traditional wood-burning pizza oven which he installed into Covent Garden restaurant. Sig Zilli didn’t want to just feed people, he wanted to entertain them. One other lovely story is about the inspiration to open a fish restaurant. He could simply not understand the ethos of British tastes.

“For such a seafaring nation why was the only fish being eaten nationally, covered in batter and wrapped in yesterday’s newspapers!”

Ten years after the opening of his first restaurant, Sig Zilli launched Zilli Fish serving spaghetti with fresh lobster, olive oil, fresh garlic, fresh chili, passata and wine. So simple, so sophisticated. This became his signature dish.

Aldo Zilli, gastronomic pioneer, a gregarious extrovert with drive and ambition yet there are undercurrents in the book of battling with personal demons. A sense that he sought to liberate himself from an imprisoned past. Repressing feelings with addiction or unhealthy habits can have detrimental effects. Sig Zilli acknowledges this to be the case and only in later life did he recognise that this was due to the uneasy relationship he had with his father.

“There was never a pat on the shoulder or a ‘well done.’ His words were always words of anger and irritation. He told me to go and work in a hotel and bring back some money.”

Much later in his life, after several failed business ventures, ill-health and two marriages later, it was pointed out to Sig Zilli that it all begins with childhood. He wanted forgiveness from his father because he blamed him and held him responsible for all his problems. He needed to return to Italy to bury his demons, once and for all.



Aldo Zilli is an award-winning celebrity chef and restaurateur who specialises in Italian, vegetarian and seafood cuisine, appearing regularly on both television and radio as presenter.

Author website:


Published in 2011. Paperback available on Amazon



Aldo's Italian Food for Friends

The Zilli Cookbook

Simple Italian Cookery

The Zilli Fish Cookbook

Fresh and Green






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