Foodie Features

Francesco Mazzei – Food From The Soul

By Rosie Birkett

The City’s favourite Calabrian chef tells us how he just wants to cook the food he grew up with, and how his restaurant L’Anima brings some southern spice to London’s Italian dining scene.

When Calabrian chef Francesco Mazzei announced he was leaving restaurateur power duo – Chris Corbin and Jeremy King – as the chef at St Alban to open a smart new Italian restaurant in London’s City district, he was met with a collective eye roll from the area’s food clique. “They said we were crazy for wanting to do another Italian restaurant in the City,” says the charismatic Italian chef, from the sofa in L’Anima’s lofty, chic bar. “But after a few months they were all talking about us and no one had a bad word to say. We didn’t get one bad review,” he smiles. And that’s because L’Anima, which translates as ‘soul’ in Italian, is rather different from the myriad plush high-end Italians London is used to. As Mazzei himself explains, “it’s mama’s cooking with chef’s hands.” “After working in five star hotels and Michelin-starred places all my life I’m finally doing the kind of food I love.

When I was working in Rome the food we were doing was over-fancy and over-complicated and I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore – I wanted to do my cooking, the food I know and love and that my family taught me – and that’s how L’Anima came about. It’s rustic and it’s real: our sophistication is finding the right ingredients – whether they come from the UK or from Italy doesn’t matter – we’ve just got to find the best of the best.” Mazzei’s passion for the food of his home country, and preoccupation with simplicity and provenance is obvious from the minute you sit down for a meal at L’Anima and are greeted with a basket of fresh, fragrant bread and slick of green, grassy olive oil. Whether you’re tucking into the winter salad – with elegant slivers of romanesco, endive and baby carrot, as much a work of art as a plate of food – or a beautifully simple risotto of clams with freshly-grated bottarga – you’ll find an ongoing theme: exceptional ingredients melded through a prism of Mazzei’s refined rustic cooking style.

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The chef’s Calabrian roots, and love of Southern Italian flavours in particular permeate his seasonal menus. This is something that also came as a shock to the City, where ingredients like ‘nduja’ – a spicy, spreadable Calabrian cured sausage and ‘fregola’ (a large-grain Sardinian cous cous) were not a part of the culinary vocabulary until Mazzei rocked up. “Our food is from southern Italy, which many people have never tasted at this high level,” he explains. “My Calabrese roots were key – no-one knew that in Calabria we eat spicy food, and people didn’t equate spicy food with Italian cuisine. That was a bit of a challenge initially but now I get verbally abused if I take the fregola off the menu – there are some dishes like that which have become untouchable.”

It’s been six years since Mazzei shook up perceptions of one of London’s favourite and most familiar imported cuisines. How is he keeping it fresh? “We have to change the menu accordingly and listen to the customers,” he says. “The day you think you’re the best is the day you’re going to die, so you’re always under scrutiny, every single day. Chefs – we call ourselves artisans rather than artists. The difference is that the artisan has to deliver really fantastic quality every single day. The artist does one piece of art that improves over time. For us it’s every single day, we have to create something new, and that’s how we keep it fresh.” “You have to keep doing your job and never think you’re done, never think you’re the best – that’s why we love our job, it’s keeps you alive, and inspired by the seasons, creating new dishes.”

L’Anima is currently running a set menu in the bar, offering two courses for 16.50 or three for 19.50, including a glass of house wine or ginger and apple juice.

L’Anima’s sister restaurant, the more informal L’Anima Café, will open later this year.

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