Published On: Fri, Oct 4th, 2013

L’Anima Italian restaurant review: Francesco Mazzei

Hannah Bellis meets chef Francesco Mazzei to review his Italian restaurant L’Anima in London. Try a few of his recipes or visit yourself for a spectacular taste of Italy…

Francesco Mazzei and Hannah Bellis in the L'Anima kitchensNow that I have eaten his food, I see Francesco Mazzei, chef patron of L’Anima restaurant, everywhere. In his work as ambassador for Welsh lamb, Calabrian bergamot and Grana Padano cheese, and through the Calabrese pizza he created that has been a mainstay of the Pizza Express menu for years. Just last week I saw the kitchens of L’Anima on TV as Francesco berated John Thomson for his shoddy pasta work on Celebrity Masterchef. But it is his food that really made me see him. It is as Francesco told me: “How many pizzas or pasta dishes have you eaten? Thousands. But the really good ones, beyond the everyday, are the ones you remember. That is why I have these dishes on the menu. When they are good, people can see the food is different and they remember.” I will certainly never forget the tortello di stracciatella con nocciole (pasta filled with stracciatella and hazelnuts) I ate at my first meal at L’Anima. Now that I’ve tasted his food, I can’t escape his intense southern Italian good looks either. How could I never have noticed him before…

He didn’t know me either. I arrived at L’Anima hopelessly lost (because it is a little tucked away) and stood bemused behind a group of five middle-aged ladies clustered behind the menu at the door. “Come in, come in,” Francesco ushered us in, assuming we were all together. “Here, come and have a Prosecco at the bar while you decide. It’s on me.” The ladies were delighted and so was I – genuine Italian hospitality in the heart of the business district of Shoreditch. I have since discovered it is not unusual for Francesco to treat all his customers in this way. But that is not why you should visit. You have to try his amazing food.

I'Anima Tortello di stracciatella

I’Anima tortello di stracciatella

 

There are dishes from all across Italy on the menu, but Francesco is from Calabria, and he is keen to showcase the best the region has to offer. “I miss the spice of Calabria. People don’t associate Italian food with chilli, but that is what we love in Calabria, and it’s good for you.” You will often see N’duja, the liquid Calabrian spicy salami, on the menu as well as dishes showcasing the famous liquorice of Rossano, and the house wines from Calabria are exceptionally good value. “I was not happy with the house wine I could offer before, so I found one from Calabria.” The olive oil on every table comes from Cerchiara, where Francesco was born at home – born, as he says, “come la pasta fresca” (like fresh pasta).

His passion for family and the rustic cooking of his homeland is obvious, but his food oozes elegance and contemporary sophistication, as does the restaurant itself. Everything is white leather and linen and light. Far from a cheap look, Francesco reckons he spends £3,000 a month on laundering the tablecloths and replacing any of the elegant glassware breakages. Similarly he replaces the white leather on the chairs every year (“red trousers,” he says, “they look good, but how I hate them!”). I didn’t understand how he could absorb these costs and still offer such an exceptionally good value set menu – just £24.50 for three courses. There is also no cover charge for their bread, even though you get an artisan selection freshly baked by Francesco’s own brother in the restaurant. So how do they do it? “We offer great quality food at a reasonable price. We do takeaways too… volume is the essence. You have to do volume.” He’s a grafter too, putting in horrific hours during his career, training at The Grand Hotel de Roma and The Dorcester in his early years, which has led to him achieving great success before he turns 40, which he does later this year. It is clear from all the various off-the-record things he hints at that there is much more to come from Francesco in the months ahead.

A few weeks after my visit, I get a text from the friend who accompanied me. He had been so impressed he’d gone back with a friend, who had recommended it to a friend who sent the Prime Minister and Chancellor. Now that they have tasted Francesco’s food, I am sure that, like me, they will be back.

 

What I ate at L’Anima

ON SITTING DOWN AT TABLE

Bread basket: all bread freshly baked in the restaurant, every day … various types of bread including focaccia … also a sour dough bread

Olive oil poured into saucer … for dipping the bread into … this olive oil comes from Cerchiara in Calabria … this is the place where Francesco Mazzei was born at home

Nibbles: two types of pizza fingers … one with tomato topping … the other with mozzarella and onion topping … both home-made … also a bowl of olives (delicious, soft, mild) from Calabria

Glass of prosecco … Prosecco DOCG superiore, made by Aneri … rich and fruity

 

ANTIPASTI (hors d’oeuvre)

First antipasto: fritto misto di pesce (mixed fried seafood) … John Dory, sardines, calamari, prawns, baby monkfish … sommelier Fabrizio says: “This is the taste of the sea”

Second antipasto: Polipo alla griglia con fagioli cannellini e ricotta di Mustia (Grilled octopus with cannellini beans and ricotta from Mustia) … the smoked ricotta from Mustia in Sardinia is lovely … octopus most tender I’ve ever had

Wine: Lacryma Christi from slopes of Vesuvius … small vineyard with limited production … grapes are 20% Falanghina, 80% Coda di volpe (lit: tail of the fox) … sommelier says: “C’è Napoli in questo vino” (approx: Naples is in this wine) … straw colour … abs. delicious nose, full and complex … sommelier says “zesty in nose, high in minerality” … cost to customer: £36 per bottle …

Francesco Mazzei comment on wine produced in this area when it was a Greek colony called Magna Grecia: “In Magna Grecia they used to produce fabulous wine”

 

PRIMI (starters)

First primo: Tortello di straciatella con nocciole … (Tortello pasta with straciatella filling, garnish of hazlenuts, borage and sage with brown butter) … surrounded by drops of aceto balsamico di Modena, 17 mesi (17-month-old Balsamic vinegar) …  quite exquisite … straciatella is like the softest, creamiest mozzarella …

Second primo: Pasta china … sort of lasagne, as made by Francesco’s mother … ingredients include polpettine di vitello (veal meatballs), uova di quaglia (quail’s eggs), spinach, aubergines and mozzarella … delicious, good example of modern adaptation of cucina povera

Third primo: Smoked aubergine and burrata

Wine: Vigna’ngena 2012 from Olbia in Sardinia … Vermentino grape … made by Capichera … apricots in nose … rich

 

SECONDI (main courses)

First secondo: Coniglio alla stimpirata … rabbit … tender and delicious …

Second secondo: Fish stew with fregola … scallops, prawns, clams and mussels with fregola, which resembles cous-cous … with tomato base and bit of chilli … prawns taste exceptionally rich …

Wine: Cirò 2010, from Crotone in Calabria … it is monovitigno, i.e. a single-grape wine, 100% gaglioppo grape … sommelier says “il calore della terra fa maturare il vino di più … c’è una corposità in bocca” (the heat of the earth makes the wine mature more … there’s a fullness in the mouth) … £40 per bottle for the customer …

 

 

For more information visit www.lanima.co.uk

You’ll find a selection of Francesco’s recipes in Issue 107 of Italia! To order a back issue, click here

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