Chef Ilma Lopez has kitchens at her restaurants Piccolo and Chaval, but this nutmeg-colored room in Portland is the one she calls her own.
Bon Appetit recently called Venezuelan-born chef Ilma Lopez “one of the most talented pastry chefs in town.” Twice a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award, Lopez and her husband Damian Sansonetti are chefs and co-owners of Portland’s Piccolo and Chaval. Between the two restaurants, they’re not often home at dinnertime, but the sunny kitchen in their off-peninsula Portland house is far from a wasteland. Lopez decided early on that her daughter, Isabella, 5, shouldn’t be punished for her parents’ career choices. Once Isabella wakes up in the morning, no matter how late they worked night before, her parents are in the kitchen preparing the main family meal: breakfast.
The room is painted a warm brown called Nutmeg. “I loved the color,” Lopez said, “but the name did it.” Throughout the kitchen are figurines of lizards and dinosaurs, courtesy of their daughter, as well as pigs, courtesy of the chefs in the family, who have a fondness for all things pig-related (their cast iron Griswold bacon press is often on display and in use for much more than just pressing bacon). There is a selection of Venezuelan rums on a side table—“My family brings a different bottle of Venezuelan rum every time they visit,” she says—as well as a spice collection in a wooden box, given to them by a regular customer on Piccolo’s fifth anniversary (the “wood” anniversary).
Their big wooden table is covered with crayons and other art supplies—the fridge features a hand-drawn proclamation from their daughter that she loves Sansonetti because he makes good food for her—as well as a giant bottle of maple syrup, a souvenir of their Maine Maple Sunday visit to Merrifield Farm and Sugar Shack in Gorham. On a typical day, Sansonetti might make a green juice and the couple will whip up scrambled eggs with avocado and cheese for themselves and waffles for Isabella, freezing the leftovers. Ollie, the family’s 9-year-old French bulldog, won’t eat unless the family is with him. “He’s super needy,” Lopez says, laughing.
“We’re so busy, but we’re also so in love with our crazy dog and daughter.” And that nutmeg kitchen.
Lopez names “diablito,” or deviled ham, as her top comfort food, and her foodie career has not dissuaded her from always having a can on hand. “My husband hates it, and I’m very particular about what my daughter eats,” said Lopez, “but it reminds me of home.” Also always present in her kitchen: avocados, pita or potato chips, Nutella, Oreos and Harina P.A.N., the cornmeal used to make traditional Venezuelan arepas.
The one (or two) kitchen items Lopez and Sansonetti would rescue in the event of a fire? Their vintage handcrafted cavatelli (the same brand Sansonetti’s grandmother used) and pasta machines, both still in their original boxes.
Chefs often eschew kitchen gadgets, but Lopez and Samsonetti were unable to resist the “Potato Express,” a gift from her grandmother. It steams potatoes (and beets) perfectly in the microwave and is a go-to when they want to whip up a quick potato salad.
A large side table holds wine from their favorite Spanish vineyard, Lopez de Heredia, and a piece of a barrel from the winery. Very few wineries in Rioja have their own cooper, noted Sansonetti, but Lopez de Heredia does, so Lopez asked if she could buy a piece of an old barrel. “They said no, but then two minutes later she was walking out with one,” Sansonetti laughed. “It’s hard to say no to Ilma.”
Their fridge is never without orange juice (Lopez call it her personal “perfect pairing” for anything from pasta to snacks), champagne, caviar, wine and three different milks: whole for Lopez, almond for Sansonetti and skim for Isabella. Plus a squeeze bottle of sweetened condensed milk. The most common leftovers in her fridge? The lamb Bolognese from Piccolo, a family favorite.
Wooden “virgenes” (virgins) hang not only in different rooms of the house, but also near the entrances and exits of both of their restaurants. A Venezuelan tradition, each virgin saint serves a different purpose. Santa Eduvidgis traditionally protects the home, and was a gift from Lopez’ mother.
Angie Bryan moved to Portland in 2018 when she retired from the diplomatic service. Her writing has also appeared in The Foreign Service Journal and MaineToday. Her own kitchen staples are cherry-flavored Diet Coke and pretty much any variety of cheese.