There are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t set up an ambitious new business venture from home, during lockdown, with your wife.
Particularly if — as is the case for Aldo Zilli — your wife is a total perfectionist, relentlessly full on, 20 years younger, a head taller, distractingly glamorous and even more hyperactive than you are.
And perhaps especially if, from a standing start, you are suddenly running a food takeaway and delivery service from your kitchen, holding cinema evenings in your garden, woodland cooking experiences on your land and selling scented candles, diffusers and earthenware pots, as your telephone rings day and night with orders.
‘Oh my God, it’s been a f*****g nightmare! It’s been just us, the kids, shouting, smoke alarms going off, shouting, power cuts and more shouting!’ says Aldo, looking a bit stunned on his expensively upholstered sofa.
Aldo Zilli and his wife decided to set up a food takeaway and delivery service from their kitchen during lockdown and it has become a huge success. Pictured: The couple with their daughter Twiggy, 12, and son Rocco, 14
‘You see, Nikki’s not normal. She’s a force of nature. She’s superhuman — she never stops. She’s a bloody nightmare, and I couldn’t have done any of it without her.’
Nikki, perching elegantly nearby is, for once, in full agreement. ‘We’re doing well, but it’s been a test of our marriage.’
In fairness, they didn’t have much choice.
Back in February, Aldo Zilli’s career was flourishing. He was a consultant for 22 restaurants all around the country and had just opened a restaurant in China for one client. He had lucrative sponsors and TV projects in the pipeline with fellow chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.
‘I was constantly travelling the world. I treated this place like a hotel,’ he says. And then came lockdown.
‘It happened overnight. Everything closed … and that was that,’ he says.
It was alarming. Not least because the impressive nine-bedroom Surrey pile he shares with Nikki and their two children, Rocco, 14, and Twiggy, 12, had a hefty mortgage that needed paying.
‘The last thing you want to do is lose your house or lose your wellbeing, but it was a possibility,’ says Aldo. ‘Of course it was. The possibility of losing everything is always in the back of your mind, because I came from nothing.’
In February, Aldo Zilli’s (pictured) career was flourishing – a consultant for 22 restaurants all around the country and had just opened a restaurant in China for one client
Then, two days into lockdown, when the local hospital put a call out for food for staff, Aldo, 64, and Rocco started knocking up pizzas for them in their pizza oven. ‘It took my mind off things,’ he says.
Soon they were making up to 50 pizzas a day, and he and Rocco started thinking: maybe they could do this as a business.
So he whipped up a menu with just five dishes. Nikki printed it and got busy with takeaway boxes, stickers and ingredients — ‘I love to be organised,’ she says — and Aldo, Rocco and Twiggy hopped on their bikes and put flyers through neighbours’ letterboxes.
The reaction was immediate. The phone started ringing off the hook and, suddenly, Aldo was making spaghetti vongole, arancini balls and tiramisu in his own kitchen, for once.
Nikki, meanwhile, did everything else: taking the orders, sourcing the ingredients, redesigning the website casa-zilli.com, arranging the pick-ups in a lay-by beside their 18-acre property and delivering to anyone shielding.
‘I’ve never worked so hard,’ says Aldo, whose early rise to fame was extraordinary. Desperate to put the poverty of his Italian childhood behind him, he arrived in London when he was just 18, got a job in a kitchen, had his first restaurant by the time he was 25 and, for decades, lived at the centre of a hard-partying celebrity whirl.
‘Sometimes I had to pinch myself — this little boy from this fishing village hanging out with all these people,’ he says.
Today, he says, the thing he finds most unsettling is the lack of contact with his customers.
Two days into lockdown, when the local hospital put a call out for food for staff, Aldo, 64, and Rocco started knocking up pizzas for them in their pizza oven
‘It’s weird not really knowing who I’m cooking for any more,’ he says.
Arguably, back in the day, when he owned seven incredibly cool restaurants (including celebrity haunts Signor Zilli, Zilli Green and Zilli Fish), Aldo knew some of his star customers, who included George Michael, Paul McCartney, the members of Spandau Ballet and Queen, Paul Gascoigne and Chris Evans — rather too well.
‘That was my downfall,’ he says. ‘I used to join them.’
And he did, every night — at their tables at the end of service, in clubs, bars, at parties at Freddie Mercury’s mansion, back in the restaurant until dawn with Wham!, or on benders with Chris Evans.
‘I had to leave for work often with no sleep at all,’ he says today. ‘Have you ever tried to go to a fish market after a club? Not good.’
It was towards the end of this time — following the inevitable collapse of his first marriage, after Freddie Mercury nearly burned down one of his restaurants cooking chips at dawn, and after the day spent wandering round Soho in a chicken costume with Chris Evans — that he saw Nikki having a drink with a pal across the road from one of his restaurants.
She was a model, former Bond girl and property developer — ‘He married me for my money, not the other way round!’ she says firmly.
Aldo pulled up in his car, she recalls, wearing a ‘loud shirt’ and shouted across at her: ‘Come for a glass of wine!’ ‘And,’ says Aldo, ‘she never went home again. I couldn’t believe my luck.
‘I was blind with love,’ he tells me when she’s out of earshot.
Nikki, though, had never heard of him. ‘My dad had — he loved all those chefs — and my mum thought he was a bit old for me.’
They married in Barbados in 2005. Two children later, and despite the constant bickering, they are clearly still going strong.
Aldo, too, has certainly cleaned up his act. He lost three stone on Celebrity Fat Club and cut down drastically on the booze. ‘I don’t really enjoy it any more … unless it’s an amazing wine.’
Nikki, meanwhile, did everything else: taking the orders, sourcing the ingredients, redesigning the website casa-zilli.com, arranging the pick-ups in a lay-by beside their 18-acre property and delivering to anyone shielding
Today, his perfect day is rather different, too. ‘A nice walk in our woodland with my dog… It’s very good for my mental health.’
Which doesn’t sound very ‘Nikki’, though I’m sure it would do her good. Or perhaps she’d benefit from a quiet sit-down on the sofa with a large glass of red.
‘Are you joking?!’ Aldo roars. ‘I’d have to tie her down. She never stops. There are good things and bad things to marrying a 20-years younger person!’
His wife is certainly a blast of energy, noise, warmth and passion. ‘Think big and you achieve big’ is her life philosophy.
‘She needs to go and do the jungle … just to calm her down and so I can sleep!’ says Aldo.
While we’re talking, one chap calls to book a meal for ten people on Christmas Eve. ‘Who’ll cook that? Me, of course! On Christmas bloody Eve!’ he mutters, as Nikki chats to the customer.
‘She chats to everyone. People ring on a busy Saturday night to order their dinner and she won’t put the phone down until she’s sold them a 30-quid candle and a diffuser, too.’
They certainly know how to pile the pressure on themselves: they’ve now applied for a licence to open a restaurant in their garden, serving customers in socially distanced ‘igloos’.
‘I love working — I can’t stop, even if I wanted to,’ says Aldo. Suddenly, he sounds just like Nikki.
What a pair! Against the odds and with an awful lot of shouting and swearing, they’ve produced a financially viable business. And saved their gorgeous home.
‘Come back next year,’ they joke as I leave. ‘You can interview us about our divorce, ha ha!’
As if. They were made for each other. Just so long as Aldo can slip off to the woods for a couple of hours of peace each day.