db interview: Nancy Dell’Olio

I’m perched on a bar stool at plush Italian restaurant Sartoria on Saville Row sipping a non-alcoholic strawberry concoction and waiting for Nancy Dell’Olio. I’ve been allotted 20 minutes with her, but the interviews are overrunning and she’s behind schedule. When we meet it’s apparent why; Nancy likes to talk.

Nancy

Dressed in a grey and white striped shirt, fitted jeans and high heels, her raven hair tied back and lips blood red, the Italian lawyer who shot to fame when she started dating former England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson seems smaller in real life than on TV.

She’s sitting at one end of a giant round table in Sartoria’s private dining room. Beckoning me in, she pulls up a chair next to her. Before the interview begins there’s the problem of a raucous table in the restaurant to sort out. Nancy isn’t happy about the noise levels and asks her PR to tell them to tone it down.

We’re here to talk about Limonbello, her new limoncello brand. While drinks brands have replaced perfume as the new celebrity plaything, Dell’Olio has done more than simply put her name to a brand – she conceived it and launched it from scratch. Its USP, she tells me, is the fact that its “sugar free”, getting its sweetness instead from agave syrup extracted from the same Mexican plant used to make Tequila.

Nancy Dell'Olio copy

“Sugar is the white enemy. Everything preserved has sugar in it, that’s why we’re all diabetics. I needed to find a way of sweetening it naturally without sugar and I struck upon agave syrup. The key is the percentage you use,” she says, though won’t reveal how much agave syrup makes it into the final blend.

The agave idea was in part inspired by her flamboyant flame-haired friend Cleo Rocos, famous for his risqué appearances on The Kenny Everett Show, who owns Tequila brand Aqua Riva and insists the spirit never gives you a hangover.

Limonbello is based on a recipe used by Dell’Olio’s grandmother to make homemade limoncello and is made with organic Sicilian lemons that have yet to fully ripen. “My dad would buy the alcohol and my grandma would source the lemons. We used to give it as presents to our friends,” she says.

The skins are macerated in alcohol for up to 48 hours then water and agave syrup is added. “We use green lemons as the skins still have all of their vitamins and oxidants at that point. I could have made it in Puglia, where I’m from, but the lemons aren’t as good there as they are in Sicily,” she admits.

Dell’Olio is disparaging about commercial limoncello flogged to Brits abroad, dubbing it “completely undrinkable” due to its sweetness, revealing that commercial limoncello tastes nothing like boozier homemade versions.

“I wanted to reinvent the category and launch a contemporary limoncello with no sugar. It’s the way the world is going – everyone is going for the low calorie options,” she says, adding, “You have to do something close to you – I’d never do a whisky, gin or vodka. You have to be authentic.”

The 30% abv lemon liqueur is made in small batches at Sicilian distillery Tutone, best known for its aniseed liqueur. Thus far three batches have been made, the most recent producing 5,000 bottles. “We’ve got the capacity to get a lot bigger but I’d never want to produce it on an industrial scale,” says Dell’Olio.

She does however have her sights set on both the US and China, where she hopes Limonbello will win hearts. “I’m optimistic as they love anything Italian in China. I’d eventually like to licence the brand in different countries but to do that you have to prove yourself first,” she says, revealing she chose to launch the brand in London not only because it’s her home but because it’s “a window onto the world”.

Limonbello

Last December Dell’Olio launched a €70,000 crowd funding campaign for Limonbello on Born.com. By March it had raised £1,481 from 15 backers but the campaign was halted when she found private investors. “The crowd funding was done for marketing reasons,” she says, admitting that she’s put her own money into getting the brand up and running. “You have to put your own money up front for potential investors to believe in a project.”

Her grand plan is to hand over the running of the company to a colleague once it’s off the ground but remain its brand ambassador, as she enjoys the promotion side of the business. She’s already working on Limonbello brand extensions, from biscuits and desserts to ‘Limonsecco’ – a premix cocktail made with Limonbello and Prosecco, despite not being a fan of the fizz herself.

“I don’t understand why Prosecco has become so popular in the UK, for me it’s too sweet. We have our own Champagne in Italy in Franciacorta, which I love, but it’s a matter of taste,” she muses.

Housed in a tall thin bottle with an ornate turquoise and yellow label, Limonbello’s packaging is unmistakably feminine, though Dell’Olio denies that she’s targeting the product at women. “I’m not aiming it at women – it’s quite strong in alcohol and all the men that have tried it really like it. I don’t see it as feminine, I see it as sexy,” she purrs.

Dell’Olio is in negotiations with Italian restaurants and bars in London to stock the brand, which is apparently delicious over roast chicken. Outside of Limonbello, Dell’Olio’s big love is Champagne, particularly Krug, Dom Pérignon and Ruinart.

“I’m a big Champagne lover. You can drink Champagne throughout a meal, not just as an apéritif,” she says. In terms of still wines, gutsy reds from her homeland of Puglia get her going. “I love reds from Puglia as I like a full body. I also love the reds from Tuscany, Piedmont and Sicily,” she reveals.

I’m curious to know whether she’s tried her former flame’s Sicilian wine effort. Titled simply ‘Sven’, the white is a blend of Fiano and Grillo, while the red blends Nero d’Avola and Frappato. “I didn’t know Sven made a wine – he put his name to one perhaps. I haven’t tried it,” Nancy says curtly, keen to move the conversation on. I can see how endless Sven questions must become grating, and wonder whether she still enjoys the fame game.

“Fame is not your choice, it’s beyond your control so you have to try and stop thinking about it. You also have to know how to play the game and enjoy it as much as possible. I don’t take it too seriously,” she says, adding, “I’d like to be anonymous sometimes, you have to pretend you are or it drains you. It’s nice to be recognised and I consider London to be my village with all the positives and negatives that go with it. But as a celebrity your sense of freedom is quite compromised.”

Limonbello goes on sale at Fortnum & Mason in August priced at £35 a bottle.

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