Food may be the fuel that keeps us alive, but for Italian-born Silvia Colloca it's so much more than that. It's a conversation starter, a way to celebrate, something that brings family together, it can start a relationship and even help to mend one.
Food has the power to make you time travel and a red sauce bubbling away on the stove will instantly transport Silvia to memories of her life as a young girl in Milan standing beside her Nonna in the kitchen as she learnt her family's traditional home-cooked recipes.
Silvia never started out to be a celebrity chef, TV presenter or food writer, and the 43-year-old from Sydney's northern beaches is just as well known for her acting and stunning mezzo-soprano opera voice, but more about that later.
Earlier this year, Silvia, of Newport, released her fifth cookbook, Simple Italian: The essentials of Italian home cooking. On April 8, season two of her show Cook Like an Italian with Silvia Colloca will be back on the small screen and soon she'll start recording season two of her podcast What I Eat When.
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So significant is Silvia's reputation as a cook that Matt Moran, Colin Fassnidge, Manu Feildel, Khanh Ong, Emmylou MacCarthy, Diana Chan and Jessica Rowe were among the guests in her first season of the podcast.
But a decade after she first became known in 'foodie' circles across Australia, she admits her friends and family were initially surprised about all the fuss.
"The things that I do, either for my books or for the magazines or on TV, most of my friends in Italy can do too," she said. "It's to the point that when my career as a TV cook and a food writer started here in Australia, my friends in Italy were like: 'Why? Why do they want you?' For us for Italians, this is what everybody does."
How about writing a book?
Silvia had been writing a food blog to help her feel connected to family and friends back in Italy after she moved to Australia, but it quickly caught the attention of publishers and she was soon offered a book publishing deal.
"I thought 'this is a fake'," she said. "When I started writing the blog it was to mainly put the family recipes in a place where they'd be safe because we'd never written them down - and then people started reading it."
Silvia had been a classical singer and an actor for years and when approached to do the book admits she was reluctant thinking she didn't have credentials. "I didn't have the degree, I didn't have the professional experience to back me up, I was just literally a home cook that was missing Italy terribly," she said.
She ended up saying yes to that offer and it led to her first book, Silvia's Cucina, which also helped her realise that it's not all that dissimilar to her other creative outlets.
"With the cooking and the writing, I have the opportunity to connect really deeply with the people who respond to what I do, as opposed to being on stage where people clap and sometimes they meet you after and you take a photo and you have two or three words," she said. "People that I don't know will send me photos of their children making my biscuits and it's so precious. I am made part of a very private moment."
Making food memories
Just like hearing a song you love, food has the ability to take you back to a moment in the past, and many of Silvia's "food memories" are tied to her younger years when she was still in Italy.
"You can time travel with food, that happens often," she said. "Especially if you've missed someone in your life and then you taste something and then all of a sudden you're reminded of a particular moment in time or of a location, or smelling that particular sauce bubbling on the stove at someone's house.
"The frustrating thing with the stuff that I do, which is home cooking and family recipes, is that no matter how hard I try they'll never taste the same way my Nonna would make them, that's because she's not stirring it. You inform the flavour of food with your love, your attitude. Ingredients are a big part of it, but the other contributing factor is what you give it - and so Nonna's food tasted like Nonna's love and you can't replicate that, but I'll try.
A classic Italian red sauce brings memories flooding back for Silvia. "Nonna would have it on the stove on repeat, day after day. We'd have pasta with sauce most days and then meatballs for sure. From my other Nonna it's the seven-hour Bolognese sauce."
Love affair with Dracula
Silvia and actor husband Richard Roxburgh met in 2003 on the set of the movie Van Helsing - she was playing Dracula's bride and he was Dracula - and while it wasn't love at first sight, she admits there was a lot of lust.
"I didn't fall in love, I fell in lust. Yeah, definitely, straight away," she said.
Australian born Roxburgh is an actor, writer, producer and director who's won acclaim for his performances on stage with the Sydney Theatre Company and in films Moulin Rouge!, Mission Impossible II and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. His film directing debut was in Romulus, My Father starring Eric Bana, released in 2007. In 2010, Roxburgh co-created and began starring in the critically acclaimed ABC1 television comedy-drama series Rake.
Silvia smiles when describing Roxburgh and their life together. "There's a bit of him that is Cleaver Greene from Rake - the cheeky banter and the wit - without the legal behaviour and the naughtiness which is a a good combo," she said.
"He's just a beautiful husband, he allows me to be who I am, he's supportive that's to put it mildly. I've come up with the craziest things and he says 'yes, let's do this, yes for sure'. He's a partner in crime, it's fun, we have a lot of beautiful days."
They married in 2004, moved to Australia in 2009 and have three children, Raffi 14, Miro 10 and Luna 3. "Raf and Miro have definitely inherited the performance bug, they like it. They're studying drama and enjoying it, they both have phenomenally beautiful singing voices," she said.
"I'm very happy, but I struggle a lot with not knowing when I will see my parents because they're in Italy with my brother and sister. That weighs a lot in my head and my heart. I think because I'm deprived of them, and of those Italian connections, and my friends from high school that I still hang out with when I go back.
"I'm so open hearted and open minded I make friends so easily and if I like someone I'm not going to skirt around it, I want that person to be a best friend, I don't want chit chat friends."
- Season two of Cook Like an Italian with Silvia Colloca airs on SBS on Thursdays at 8pm.
Sweet sounds of opera
Silvia is a professional mezzo-soprano opera singer and attended Milan's Scuola Musicale for four years. She's performed throughout Europe and, prior to COVID, regularly across Australia.
"You don't get into opera, you just have to train, it's like getting into the Olympics. You have to study like a maniac for years and years and keep studying and keep practicing," she said.
"I like the discipline. I love that the instrument was inside my body, this mysterious, incredibly small and yet incredibly intricate instrument that we can't see. You learn to play by how your body feels and you get it to do all these incredible things that you build a muscle memory for.
"You can keep on stretching and expanding and it's still the same size. It's just an extraordinary thing. You have to be technically sound or otherwise you can't sing safety because you can just hurt your larynx or your throat."
The last opera she performed was in March last year in front of 3000 people in Victoria just days before COVID lockdowns were enforced. When the Avalon COVID cluster erupted in December 2020, the subsequent northern beaches lockdown forced her to bow out of performing at the Melbourne Carols By Candlelight.
"I've missed it like crazy, it was really good to have that gig lined up because I kept practicing," she said.
"It's a beautiful thing to do to have music in your life, whether you're a professional singer or you just sing in the shower, it's an endorphin releaser."