I first met Aldo a few months ago, when he darted unannounced into>, Zilli Green and started waving chairs around above his head in the middle of service. Unfortunately for the gossip pages, this wasn't a stereotypical fit of Italian passion, but a shining example of Aldo's attitude towards his work. As he rearranged the furniture to make room for additional diners, it was immediately clear that Aldo takes a personal interest in the daily running of his restaurants. When I spoke briefly with him that evening he was extremely passionate about Zilli Green and what he was hoping to achieve – and as a sandal-wearing, lentil-muncher myself I sincerely hoped that enthusiasm hadn't waned a few months after, in the face of a notoriously carnivorous London town.
Thankfully my prayers were answered and, if anything, Aldo seemed even more certain that he had done the right thing. Aldo first moved to the UK 30 years ago, setting up the hugely popular Signor Zilli five years later. The Soho-based classic Italian restaurant quickly became a notorious celebrity haunt and its success allowed Aldo to branch out, adding a fish restaurant, a bar and a café to his portfolio.
At the beginning of this year Signor Zilli was relaunched as Zilli Green, a new restaurant with a completely vegetarian menu. Rebranding his flagship restaurant after 25 years was a bold move – so where did his inspiration come from? “I had always wanted to open a vegetarian restaurant and Signor Zilli needed a revamp, so it just made sense," explained Aldo. “I had a few ideas about opening a vegetarian restaurant and then ended up talking about it with Enzo (Zilli Green head chef). I'd worked with him before, many years ago, and he's a great chef – but he's also a vegan now, so that additional expertise and passion really encouraged me and the plan was put into action soon afterwards."
The menu at Zilli Green changes every two to three weeks – in line with the seasons, of course – and Aldo and Enzo work together to come up with new dishes all the time. “I love being there and I love the challenge of recreating the menu when we get new ingredients in. I'm in the restaurant every day, even if it's just to get first dibs on the food!" The food itself is certainly inventive, with an emphasis on fresh, natural produce and flavours, while genuinely animal-free ingredients (such as rennet-free parmesan and vegan wines) show a real awareness of the more specific difficulties faced by vegetarians when eating out. “It's important that people know they can trust our food, so we're really careful about what goes into each dish." This comes as music to the ears of someone who is more used to explaining that, actually, chicken still counts as meat.
Meat had never been particularly important to Aldo's cooking, (“I'm more of a fish man really…") but his interest in vegetarianism came about after some family health concerns made him look at his diet in more detail and he went on to appear on ITV's Celebrity Fit Club. Since then he has been the poster chef for healthy eating in general and vegetarianism in particular. “I'm 95% vegetarian myself now – I still eat a little fish – and I wanted to show people what can be done with vegetarian food. It's incredibly versatile." Jamie Oliver might obsess over turkey twizzlers, but with Zilli Green Aldo has really put his money where his mouth is. Was he nervous about changing his flagship restaurant so dramatically? “Oh no – I want Zilli Green to be my flagship now. I want it to be the star of the show!"
If that initially seems unlikely because of the meatless menu, Aldo firmly believes that attitudes towards vegetarianism will change. “Vegetarian food is the future. There's a real lack of good veggie food in this country and there's still a lot of stigma around about it being tasteless and boring." I tentatively suggest that a lot of that stigma comes from chefs themselves – after all, when was the last time you saw a TV chef cooking without meat or fish? – and luckily Aldo agrees, laughing: “a lot of the other chefs really don't like vegetarians!" He continues to work hard at growing the business and promoting Zilli Green right across the board. “40% of our diners are meat-eaters – which is pretty incredible – and a lot of them come back once or twice a week. We're getting great feedback, which is making me even more determined to succeed."
Initially slated by professional restaurant reviewers, Zilli Green has continued to improve since its opening and has managed to win over the far more discerning restaurant-going public who – quite rightly – care more about their overall experience than how precisely a slice of aubergine is fried. Aldo is well aware of this, and knows he has every reason to be proud of the reputation Zilli Green is building up. “I'm delighted with how well it's going. We've got a great regular client base and I'm currently working on a vegetarian recipe book. I would love to do a documentary as well!" So it would seem that vegetarians across London can breathe a sigh of relief – Aldo's latest passion is showing no signs of waning.
Eat like Aldo: at Zuma, a Japanese restaurant in Knightsbridge. “This place is great, and I love the food they serve there."
Drink like Aldo: at The Ship in Wandsworth. “It's right on the river and there's a massive barbeque outside in the summer. It's just wicked!"
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