Born and raised in Calabria, the toe on Italy’s boot and the region noted for producing n’duja, as a child I was adamant I didn’t want to be a chef – I was mainly concerned with how much time I could spend playing football. Don’t get me wrong I always had a passion for food and you’d often find me in our family kitchen baking bread and making pasta with nonna and mamma. However, determined to buy my very first pair of Levi’s jeans, I started working in my uncle’s gelateria in Calabria, mastering the art of Italian cakes and gelatos by the age of nine. At fourteen, I met renowned Italian chef Angelo Sabetta who, amazed by my Mangia e Bevi creation (a combo of sorbet and fresh fruit), encouraged me to nurture my talent and study to become a chef. That was a pivotal moment for me and, flattered by his words, I started to reconsider my life-long ambitions.
After catering college, in 1992 I moved from Calabria to Rome and joined The Grand Hotel. Inspired by the international vibe, I took the leap and left for London to learn English where I landed a job at The Dorchester in Mayfair, working under the respected Willi Elsener and Henry Brosi before returning to Rome to take up a position at Michelin-starred La Terrazza dell’Eden. Ever since then, staying still hasn’t been my forte. I opened the Santini restaurants in Edinburgh and Milan, the Royal Sporting Club in Bangkok, Franco’s on Jermyn Street and St Alban in London, as well as venues across the world alongside restaurateur Alan Yau, a good friend and a mentor.
At the age of 34, I opened L’Anima restaurant in the City of London where dishes from Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia took centre stage. Proud ambassador of all things southern Italian, I began advising the Calabrian government on how to promote their artisan goods in the UK, including citrus fruit bergamot and the spicy sausage n’duja, both of which are lovingly produced in my home region. Thanks to a very successful partnership with Pizza Express, for which I created an n’duja based pizza recipe, this renowned spreadable chilli-spiced sausage was finally introduced into the restaurants and dinner tables of Britain (and there’s been no turning back!).
After a 7-year adventure at L’Anima, in June 2015, I joined D&D’s restaurant Sartoria in Mayfair as chef patron, with plans to create a ‘temple of Italian cuisine’. My first cookbook Mezzogiorno: Southern Italian cooking, was published in Autumn of the same year.
In the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to appear on BBC shows including Saturday Kitchen, MasterChef and on the Italian edition of Hell’s Kitchen with chef extraordinaire Carlo Cracco. A Taste of London devoted veteran, I was appointed ‘Master of Taste’ for the 2016 edition of House of Peroni.
I can’t lie, I’m having a blast.
Calabrian cuisine is widely renowned for being very hot, as Calabrian chillies are considered among the hottest in the world. A couple of years ago, I’ve embarked on a chilli farm project with my brothers and some friends back home. It’s something I love dedicating my time to, whenever I return to Italy – it keeps me grounded and in touch with the terroir. The farm produces dried chilli, chilli flakes, chilli paste and Frajotta – a finger-lickin’ good chilli jam. Calabria doesn’t have a native chilli variety so we produce Matiz, Lapid and Amando (hybrid varieties); Cayenne catanzarese (American medium/long sized variety) and the Catanzarese (Calabrian super long variety). It’s my way of thanking and celebrating my home land.
So if you happen to pass by Villapiana on your Italian journey and you are looking for some hot stuff, look no further and pay us a visit at Contradapiano del Praino, Cerchiara di Calabria.