1 Snowden Street, London EC2
When I approach Signore Mazzei for an interview I expect to be offered a rushed half hour between service slots, or a phone call even. Instead he warmly and casually invites me to have lunch with him at his restaurant L’Anima just four days later. This is a bit of a Charlie Bucket moment for me, having never had lunch with a chef before, let alone a proper at-the-top-of-his-game one.
However, Francesco is the antithesis of the clichéd kitchen dragon. Instead he’s down to earth and approachable (and he’s a chef?!). While others were sweating and stressing at the Taste London fest, he was clowning around with his staff and openly having a ball. However, as I was about to discover, talk to him about food and he becomes deadly serious.
When I rock up at his packed restaurant (“credit crunch, what credit crunch?” he breezes) tucked away on a little side street near Liverpool Street, I have no inkling that this is going to be one of those meals you remember for the rest of your life, the kind you tell your grandchildren about and maybe shed a rheumy tear of nostalgia over whilst dribbling reconstituted pap in the old folk’s home. I’ve eaten at the chef’s table at Maze, dined at the Fat Duck, at Le Caprice and at Nobu and yes these were great, but I couldn’t tell you half of what on earth I ate (and yes, I was sober) except that some of them left a faintly dodgy after-taste of money and fear.
Walking into the restaurant I am immediately dazzled by the light, the suits and the white leather sofas (by Claudio Silvestrin no less, designer to Anish Kapoor and Armani). There are beautiful clean lines; it’s all porphyry, limestone and glass. However, it’s far from intimidating and has managed to unite those tricky frenemies of class and welcome with proper, understated taste. I feel strangely at home, perched at the bar sipping deliciously cold Prosecco. The focus on detail is everywhere; even the cocktail sticks I spear my enormous olives with are stylish slivers of carved Perspex. The staff wear genuine smiles and there’s no sense of stress or attitude after what was clearly a manic lunch-time rush. This place is very, very cool.
Francesco Mazzei is everywhere. He is at the door, in the kitchen, talking to customers, to his staff. He apologises profusely to me for being five minutes late. This is someone who simultaneously manages to exude bonhomie from every pore with the careful respectfulness of a Japanese housewife. He shows me proudly around the kitchen, the private dining room and wine cellar.
Backstage there’s an almost Zen-like air of calm and studious focus. L’Anima opened in June last year, and I can well believe him when he tells me there was a slight delay because he wanted everything to be just so. His generosity is irrepressible, he orders half a dozen dishes and introduces me to his head chef Luca Terraneo, restaurant manager Patrick Oberto and sommelier/assistant manager Gal Zohar – “we are all one big mafia family” he laughs as Gal pours me a linen-crisp glass of Vermentino Lupi Le Serre, sourced from a tiny vineyard back home.
He tells me that his real secret is his support team, without them he would be nothing. He’s known Luca for twelve years. He points to Antonio, his sous chef and tells me that he trusts him enough to run the kitchen on his own in the evenings. They really are like one big family, with the unspoken understanding that only derives from playing and working so closely together.
A dish of Frisella arrives. The juicy fruit of English tomatoes, Campagna Mozzarella and flavour-sodden bread meld in the mouth in sweet, textural revelation. The mozzarella is like cream immortalised and soppingly fresh. The simplicity of the dish is deceptive; there is of course the most rigorous attention to detail. He tells me how the tomato seeds are marinated with oil, garlic, dried oregano, chervil, dill and chives. The result is the sort of summery mouthful that makes your salivary glands pop and twitch at its very memory.
Francesco’s Calabrian and we discuss the Moorish/Spanish influence in his cooking. What he’s doing is unique amongst Italian chefs in the UK. Ingredients like N’Duja (a spicy, spreadable salami) and distinctly un-Italian cardamom and paprika appear in his dishes. His beautiful Sicilian wife is clearly an influence in his cooking. He also shows me a picture of his two year old daughter, Sofia Mia, she looks cheek-pinchingly adorable. We talk a lot about family. He tells me that he married his childhood sweetheart, that they spend Sundays cooking and eating together as a family after going to church. Seriously, how refreshing is that? In this hubristic, sordid world of chefs behaving like slags and acting up like they’re rock stars, here’s someone real and humble with proper family values. I find this deeply impressive -I suppose it strikes a chord with the traditional Asian girl in me.
The crab, avocado and tomato water arrives in all its subtle glory. Every mouthful is an education in refreshment and delicacy and a perfect antidote to the Shoreditch heat. Francesco tells me it’s Colchester crab and that he’s a strong supporter of the slow food movement. He’s big on sustainability, not in a self-conscious tick-box sort of way, but more in the manner that someone whose family slaughters their own pigs might be.
I have a sip of some cracking Pinot D’Airot from North Niedermayr, a region close to the Austrian border. Zohar (a man truly obsessed with fine wine) tells me it’s an area renowned for its whites but this light, fruity red is very special. I ask Francesco what Georgio Locatelli is like. He tells me he’s a friend. He’s also friends with Alan Yau and Giuseppe the man behind Franco Manco. I suddenly realise he’s pretty much friends with everyone. One of those genuinely nice people you just can’t imagine having enemies.
A dish of octopus, cannellini beans and ricotta “mustia” arrives and he offers me the plate, beaming like a proud father, letting me cuddle his first born. I take a mouthful. The meaty Portuguese octopus is smoky and tender, tapering off into crispy goodness towards the tip of the tentacle, like oceanic bacon. The salty, charred cheese and the Ligurian beans gently lift the paprika notes in the cephalopod. I wolf it down.
Francesco doesn’t harp on about it, but he’s worked damned hard to get to where he is. He tells me how he took his first job in his uncle’s ice-cream shop when he was eight years old, because he was jealous of his mate’s Levis and wanted to buy his own. When he later came to the UK he had no money and couldn’t even afford a packet of fags. It must have been fairly hellish, to not know anyone, to have been unable to speak the language. He gradually worked his way up, doing long shifts and supporting himself with a gruelling second job in Soho. After six months he got his first promotion. This is someone who knows the meaning of hard graft, of beam-like focus and of intense discipline.
During our meal, the restaurant slowly empties, until just one couple remain. As they leave, almost as if on cue they make a gushing point of telling me how much they love the food. He smiles shyly and tells me that he sees a lot of this. The ones that eat here on business and then come back again and again with their partners. They all seem pretty loaded and he confirms that the majority order north of the “2 courses for £23.50” set lunch.
Next up is wild herb and ricotta tortelli with famiglia gottardi’ balsamic vinegar. This of course is no ordinary tortelli, this is more like witchcraft. Think silky, tender pasta stuffed with borage, nettle, spinach, sage and shallots, the flavours plucked out with droplets of nectar-like vinegar and topped with crispy sage leaves that disintegrate beautifully on the tongue. This is like a mouthful of poetry. This is what ambrosial love must taste like. Sod the fiancé; I want to spend the rest of my natural life with this tortelli.
The fish stew with Sardinian Fregola is served. It’s his signature dish, real nonna cooking but top chef style. It’s like a curry he tells me, with complex layers of flavour. The tomato-red broth is dense with seafood, thickened with the cous-cous like pasta and adorned with lemon and bottarga slivers. A savoury, aniseed-laced under-current pulses on the palate like a big, fat garage bass line. Although it’s superlative, maybe I’m just too full at this point, but it’s my least favourite dish. Also, I am far too intrigued by his stories and prefer the accompanying crisp courgette shards as they are easier to nibble on whilst we talk. I scarf down half a bowl; they’re as addictive as MSG.
He urges me to try the black pepper aged beef tagliata, marrow bone and mash. Presented like a palm tree the marrow bone is mashed with truffle, chives, parmesan and potato, then stuffed back into the bone with “leaves” of Aberdeen Angus draped over the top. The smell of truffles fills the air and it is incredible, but I can barely manage a mouthful. By this point I am both full and pretty wasted.
A trio of melon, lemon and strawberry sorbet is set down like a gauntlet. Make no mistake, this is someone who lives and breathes food. He tells me that he has so many new ideas, he wants to update the menu on an almost daily basis. I take a spoonful of the lemon. It’s lush with chords of sherbet and vanilla. I try the strawberry and realise I’m actually holding my breath it’s so good, but to him it’s not quite right. He frowns at it with a critical eye.
We then have an elegant and floral wood-oven roasted apricot with lavender honey and amaretto ice-cream. This is exquisite. We have soufflé and I am battered by a tsunami of cocoa. A frozen truffle is unwrapped and I practically inhale the chocolate sauce and the hazelnut ice cream. You can so tell he used to make this all the time as a kid.
By now I’m blissed out to the max and never, ever want to leave. I want to live in this restaurant and become part of his mafia family. I’ve just been treated to a 4 hour lunch by a top chef for free, with no expectation of anything in return. Could this be a gift from the karma police for helping that blind pensioner with her shopping? I try to work out how I can make them adopt me. At the end he tells me he’s impressed at how much I’ve managed to eat. I wonder if he realises that he’s pretty much ruined my life because nothing I ever eat again will match this food, this meal.
We talk about the future and he mentions how much he’d love to organise eating tours around Sardinia and Calabria and how a cookbook/autobiography might be in the works, but nothing’s been confirmed yet. Zohar pours more wine and we are joined by more of the team. He sighs happily and tells me that he has it all, the family, the restaurant; that he’s very happy doing what he loves.
However, despite these protestations of contentedness, I sense Francesco is a driven man. He’s not on some grasping quest for fame, though. No, his mission is a different one; for Southern Italian food to be recognised as a cuisine in its own right in this country. I for one am a devoted convert.