Interview with James Chiavarini of Il Portico

As part our Grazie series we’re taking a closer look at the most exciting artists, designers, chefs and creatives inspired by Italian style. It’s a well known fact that tradition, family and food all play an incredibly important role in Italian life, and no-one understands that more than James Chiavarini, current owner of London restaurants Il Portico and Pizzicotto. While Pizzicotto, a modern bistro and pizzeria, may be a relatively new venture, Il Portico has been run by the Chiavarini family since the 1960s, making it one of the capital’s oldest family-run restaurants. James and his family still honour the Chiavarini traditions, taking delight in serving authentic Italian food based on the recipes and ideas of their ancestors. We caught up with him to discuss fond family memories, the importance of simplicity and our emotional connection to food.

Hi James. Can you tell us a little about Il Portico and what you do?

Il Portico has been owned and managed by my family for three generations. We specialise in dishes with a sense of history and provenance from our home region of Emilia Romagna.

Do you think it’s important to keep family traditions and pass down recipes through generations?

Of course. In our increasingly industrialised world we’re rapidly losing our emotional connections to agriculture, cooking and food. As tribes we have been connecting over food and cooking for thousands of years, so to lose that in one generation would be criminal.

How did growing up in a family of chefs influence your approach to food?

I started working at Il Portico when I was 12 years old. My father, grandfather, mother, aunt and great uncle were all chefs to some extent. I was incredibly lucky. I remember growing up the youngest in a family of four, being chased around the kitchen table by my bigger siblings whilst my grandmother made ravioli. I would use her rolling pin to defend myself whilst stealing left over bits of raw pasta. You could argue that pasta making saved my life!

What do you think makes a perfect Italian meal?

La Cucina Povera – poor man’s food.  I would rather dine on a husk of bread dipped in a pot of tomato sauce than anything else.

Have you seen people’s attitudes towards Italian food change over the generations?

Absolutely, and much towards to the better too. There is much more understanding of different regions beyond Tuscany. Our clientele is so much more sophisticated now regarding food that when you look back at the 70s it seems like another planet.

What are some of your favourite dishes to cook and to eat?

I do all the game shooting and foraging for the restaurant, so plenty of wild venison, wood pigeon, rabbit, and wild mushrooms. Anything that I have an intimate understanding of its origin and nature.

Who are some of your favourite chefs and favourite restaurants?

Pierre Koffman deserves a knighthood for his work on raising the bar of cuisine in London. One of my earliest memories was lunching at the Tante Claire with my mother, aunt, and grandmother. It was almost a religious experience for me.
Now, as a general rule, I will only eat out in a restaurant once it has been open for 5 years. This way it eliminates 99% of all the restaurants people keep asking me to try. On my day off the last place I want to be is another Italian restaurant! I adore the food at Ming Jang in the Royal Garden as well as a simple brunch at my local café in Chiswick.

What do you think makes Italian food and the Italian approach to dining so special?

Family, comfort, and relaxation. Don’t overthink it!