"This is a ravishing addition to the London restaurant scene": these words of John Walsh, journalist for The Independent, are no more than the umpteenth positive comment by the English press on Francesco Mazzei’s L’Anima restaurant, a culinary temple of soul. He is the Italian who has seduced London with ‘nduja, Sardinian sea food fregola and veal in tuna sauce: Calabria-born and just over 40, the chef is collecting accolades with his first restaurant – opened in 2008 - which rate it as the best restaurant of Italian cuisine in England.
A huge success he also owes to his staff of 54 people, most of whom come from Italy. Calabria in particular. Opened just recently, L’Anima Café is a more intimate and informal version of the original, “so that everyone, no one excluded, can afford to taste my food”, says Maffei.
There is always a particular person or a chance episode that can change one’s life: and in your case?
At the age of 18, I worked in my uncle’s ice-cream shop. One day, a famous local chef came in and ordered an ice-cream: I prepared one of my sundaes for him with extra special care. “You ought to cook”, was his response: so that was the start of an adventure which took me from South Italy to the Grand Hotel in Rome. It was there that I realized that the turning point in my career had to be in England, so I started to study until I felt ready for London.
What was it like when you started to work for the Dorchester in Mayfair?
Very tough. I was just another number among the 120 chefs, but it was a real education for me. Then I went back to Rome but, by then, my mindset had changed. I started to travel, to learn more and broaden my mind: Alan Yau, one of the most eminent Hong Kong chefs I got to know in London took me with him to open a series of venues in the UK, the United States and Mumbai.
When did the real awakening come?
I happened to be in Italy at the time. It suddenly dawned on me that I should exploit what I had previously considered to be a limit: my meatloaf, pizzas and ‘nduja. All of these dishes, that foreigners love, may not correspond to the French Michelin guide model, they may not be “haute cuisine”, but they are appreciated and copied worldwide. From then on, I decided to be proud of my origins and to promote Calabria and South Italy by making use of its best products. I also draw inspiration from Sicily, Apulia and Sardinia: this gives rise to dishes such as Cavatelli with prawns and zucchini, Spring risotto creamed with Grana Padano Riserva or veal liver with pancetta.
What is ‘nduja exactly? Why is it so popular?
It is a rather spicy pork sausage that is spreadable and therefore very versatile. You can dose its strong flavour to suit your own taste. I signed the “Calabrian” pizza for a large catering chain: it was such a hit that Pizza Express bought 2 million Pounds worth of ‘nduja in Calabria. This is my way of being a testimonial for the Made in Italy cachet, even though I live and work at a distance. ‘Nduja is not the only example though: every two months I go back home to seek out new Calabrian products to introduce in my restaurant. For instance, cheese, liquorice and extra virgin olive oil. Now I am focusing on wine: even though they are not very well known as yet, Calabrian wines are excellent value for money.
What are your plans for the near future?
To get L’Anima café off to a good start, this being a smaller and more intimate venue with the same quality cuisine. And then I want to support my region in southern Italy, by buying and importing its products to London and by offering as many work opportunities as possible to young cooks: I always tell them that a chef’s job is one of toughest, but also one of the most satisfying in the world. When I was at the Dorchester I spent months without seeing the daylight: I used to work 18 hours a day but I was content. In London, I always talk about my Calabria because that’s where my heart is.