Francesco Mazzei: Pearls of Wisdom

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Related tags: Italian cuisine

Francesco Mazzei at l'Anima
Francesco Mazzei at l'Anima
The chef-patron of L’Anima in the City of London discusses his southern Italian roots, working with business partner Peter Marano, and his plans to enter the accessible all-day dining sector.

L’Anima Café is a baby that’s still in its mother’s womb.​ It will be a fun little sister to L’Anima that’s in the same building – open all day, seven days a week with takeaway and, eventually, delivery as well.

I grew up in Calabria in the south of Italy.​ We didn’t have much money, so if we wanted to buy things we had to work. I started in my uncle’s ice-cream shop when I was nine.

People are now more likely to have a few bottles of less expensive wine than splash out​ [on a higher-priced bottle]. The City guys are concerned about what it looks like, and they are also still worried about the world’s economic future.

When I arrived in the UK I spoke no English.​ I was working at The Dorchester, but I also had to have English lessons. And on other nights I cooked at Il Siciliano on Dean Street [Soho] to earn extra money so that my girlfriend could come and visit me.

I am working on a book of rustic dishes from my beautiful home region.​ No-one knows this food: it’s quite spicy and very different from Sicilian, which is a bit heavier.

In my three-and-a-half years at The Dorchester I learned about discipline​ – this was a Swiss-run operation so you were always on time and never sick – and I learned how to manage people.

The Café will be a bar-ristorante with a menu mainly of pizza and pasta.​ It will be casual, with a great bar area, and some affordable dishes like pizza quattro stagione  and spaghetti carbonara. Luca Terraneo, my number two for many years, will head it up.

At the moment I’m in love with Naamyaa [in Islington, London].​ I’ve lived in Bangkok and this is a proper Thai place, which some people don't understand.

In 2002, Alan Yau asked me to open an Italian restaurant with him​ – Anda on Baker Street – but it was ahead of its time and closed nine months later. We had communal tables, you poured your own wine… it was all very informal but at fine-dining prices, so it didn’t work.

I was working for Chris Corbin and Jeremy King​, two true gentlemen, as head chef at St Alban when Peter Marano offered me the chance to open my own restaurant. I wasn’t sure about opening in the City but, at the age of 34, it was an unmissable opportunity to create the restaurant that I really wanted.

City diners are very loyal and they respond to good service​. We play the Italian role – open, friendly, generous. They don’t want it to be stuffy and they don’t want to be pushed to spend more; leave it up to them.

Our strength is that it’s only Peter and me, no-one else.​ We keep arguing like a husband and wife, but we respect each other and there is a trust built up over six years. He was the one who believed in opening in the City: he said we’d be the first, but that others would follow. And he was right.

When the customer opens a wine list​, the staff should take note of which page they are looking at. There’s no point in trying to sell them an expensive bottle if they are only looking at the first few wines.

L’Anima’s menu has eight or nine dishes that are untouchable.​ I took the fregola out once, but I got so much abuse from regulars I had to put it back. The menu is mainly southern Italian, but a good Italian restaurant has to have a risotto, too.

The best thing about selling my Pizza Calabrese to Pizza Express​ was that they now source their salami from Calabria. That has given jobs to lots of people in what is the poorest part of Italy, so it makes me very proud. Now my dad is enjoying all the credit out there!

Italian cuisine is one of the most popular around the world​, but it’s not been treated with enough respect. People think you can knock out pizza and pasta easily, but it can be a gourmet dish if you do it properly.

I’m not on the pass very often now.​ I prefer to be with the boys cooking on the sections. Then they know what I want. And then I’m always around the tables as well – that’s the way we do it at L’Anima.

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