There are some people whose kitchens feel like their entire homes – where they’re most comfortable rolling out pasta dough or tasting a sauce. In Olivia Cavalli’s case, she is one of those people. If her kitchen is any reflection of what we see of her online, it’s filled with colour, ingredients and dusty flour; bubbling focaccia and silky strands of pasta. As a cook, food stylist, and writer, these skills blend into the most beautiful tablescapes and plates of food. Everything harks back to her Italian roots, from the supper clubs she hosts to the dishes she cooks – as well as where she spends her time, moving between Italy and her home in London; no doubt to soak up inspiration (and pick up some beautiful produce). We sat down with Olivia to talk about hosting, her Italian heritage and a couple of her favourite recipes.
When did you discover your love of cooking?
I enjoyed baking when I was little – probably mostly just to lick the bowl – and I remember spending days snipping out recipes from food magazines and sticking them all together in a ring binder to make a cookbook! But I’d say it wasn’t until after university that I really started cooking properly and began thinking about it as a career option.
Where do you get your cooking inspiration and ideas from?
I spend a lot of time in Italy and that’s where I’m always most inspired. Yes, from the restaurants and dishes but also from the people, the culture and the rituals around meals there. I also love food shopping in Italy, going to the market to see what’s on offer that day and planning what to cook from there – much better than traipsing around a supermarket with a big trolly. Plus, the enthusiasm of the market sellers is infectious and they’re always happy to share ideas and tell you their favourite way of cooking something.
You’re hosting a dinner party, what are you serving and where are we eating?
Fingers crossed I’ll be moving soon so I’m really looking forward to being able to have friends over again. There’s a little garden where I’ll set up a table and pray for a sunny evening. I’ll probably stick to two courses if it’s casual. Anchovies, olives and focaccia to nibble, a bowl of pasta or maybe a roast chicken with lots of sides and salads and always dessert. Tiramisu, roasted fruit with mascarpone or ice cream. I borrowed my sister’s very fancy ice cream machine recently and am quite reluctant to give it back.
How do you bring your Italian heritage into your home?
I’ve got so many nick-nacks from Italy dotted around the house that I’ve picked up over the years. I’m obsessed with the mini food magnets you find there and have started a little collection. My favourite is the tiny jar of amarena cherries and, actually, we always have a jar of the real thing in the cupboard for last minute desserts. I have all sorts of random bits I’ve found in markets: copper pots and pans, pasta cutters, ceramic plates and jugs. I was also given a lovely old sieve as a present that I’m looking forward to hanging on a wall soon.
Do you ever feel torn between the UK and Italy?
Always. I’ve spent the last few years going back and forth, spending a few months at a time in Italy and I really love it. I feel a lot calmer there and hope one day I’ll find a way to live in Italy more permanently. At the moment, though, work and life is in London and I’ve got lots of things I’m excited to do here.
Can you tell us (a story) about an ordinary object in your kitchen that has a special significance?
My Nonna’s old Parmesan pot. It’s just a little glass with a metal lid and a dinky spoon but it’s probably my most treasured kitchen item. She’d only ever use the finest side of the grater that takes the longest and hurts your arm after a while and as she got older she’d put us to work grating cheese as soon as we’d walked through the door. It will always remind me of sitting at her kitchen table eating together. There are very few things that aren’t improved with a good sprinkle of Parmesan.
What’s your go-to pasta dish and can you give us a quick recipe on how you make it?
It’s one for the summer when peppers are nice and sweet. I slice them very finely and cook them down in lots of olive oil, a little garlic, tomatoes and basil until they’ve completely collapsed and you have a thick, rich sauce and the oil has turned bright orange. It’s the most popular recipe that I teach when doing cooking workshops because it’s so simple but really really good.
What’s a dish that reminds you of home?
An obvious answer but pasta!
Apart from Italian, what’s your favourite cuisine?
I love Japanese food.
Best song/album for a dinner party?
Anything that someone else chooses. I get stage fright.
Portrait of Olivia by Philippa Langley