L‘Anima, the City’s new authentic, regional Italian hotspot, has been on my list since even before its long-anticipated, much-delayed opening only a couple of months ago. A five-month wait has created much suspense and expectation, but Chef Francesco Mazzei, formerly of St. Alban, is not complaining – “I’ve had time to travel more and source better suppliers, we’ve tested the equipment and I have the costings sorted. The kitchen is under control and I feel like we can manage things properly” – so neither shall I.
First impressions were very favourable: entering through the immense, restaurant-wide glass façade, one is immediately struck and soothed by L’Anima’s beauty, elegance and tranquillity. Designed by architect Claudio Silvestrin, clean, clear lines and geometric shapes feature heavily in this minimalist space. The rich, robust ingredients that make up the interior – brown porphyry walls, beige limestone travertine floors, French limestone corridors that lead to the Cistercian private dining crypt, wine cellar and bathrooms – show strength and solidity and combine to convince that this restaurant has already stood the test of time and will continue to do so. The dining area, sated with the sunlight that soaks through those large windows, is immaculate and open; generously spaced, wide tables, decked in pristine, angelic, white napery, are complemented by matching white, cosy leather chairs. It is luxurious, refined and yet charming and comfortable; one feels as if floating on a cloud. In fact, this cloud-like white complements the earthy brown of the walls, evoking a sense of heaven and earth. Actually, Silvestrin is rather partial to the elements – water, fire, earth – and draws on these themes for inspiration here. The whole restaurant is really rather exquisite with a definite, expressive charisma. It is inviting, nourishing and calming, but also graceful and sophisticated; L’Anima is indeed soulful.
The staff, dressed smartly in black and white, are a truly cosmopolitan crew; walking from the front door to my table I was already able to discern accents ranging from Italian to South American, from Eastern European to English. Though L’Anima has only been up and running a short time, service is slick and efficient, like a well-(olive)-oiled machine. Waiters and waitresses are friendly, enthusiastic and all-smiles; they also seem proud of their new restaurant and are keen to show it off, escorting diners on a tour of the premises. On my very own tour I was even allowed to enter and observe the kitchen. Unfortunately, Mazzei was not in today, but L’Anima’s very able head chef, Luca Terraneo, was. I had caught him at a good time; he had a little time to spare in which I was able to quiz him on the menu. After a few minutes, my difficulty in choosing which of the many appealing dishes I wanted became embarrassingly obvious, but Chef Luca, who had remained patient and enthusiastic the whole time, came to the rescue. He told me not to worry; he would personally decide what I was to eat. Problem solved.
A note on the menu may be useful. This is not generic Italian; the focus here is very firmly on Southern Italian cooking. Mazzei, Calabrian (Calabria is in the ‘toe’ of Italy) himself, has constructed a menu loaded with recipes from Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily and, of course, Calabria too. Ingredients have been sourced from around Britain and Italy to create deceptively simple dishes that are characterised by strong, distinct, rustic Mediterranean and also North African and Moorish flavours.
Stuzzichino: Olive di Cerignola. A simple ‘amuse‘ of green Cerignola olives from Puglia set the tone for the meal that was to follow. The gorgeous garden green hue of these plump and meaty olives was the very embodiment of freshness and flavour.
Il Pane: A selection of focaccia, grissini, ciabatta and sourdough were offered. Soft and fluffy, each was decent. My preference, however, lay with the focaccia and its slightly salty, very herby taste of rosemary. The bread was accompanied by a strong, flavourful extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany.
Antipasto 1: Wood Roast Aubergine & Burrata. For those unfamiliar with burrata – do not be embarrassed, even I had not heard of it before this meal – it is an Italian cheese made from cows’ milk and filled with fresh cream and strips of mozzarella. And it is delicious. Smoky, deep, woody aubergine balanced the creamy, bouncy, milky cheese. An olive oil, parsley and pesto garnish complemented both, whilst sun-dried ‘impact’ cherry tomatoes supplied a sharp surprise. This dish was wonderfully simple yet rich, delicate yet full of flavour.
Antipasto 2: Fritto Misto with Lemon. A mountain of crispy crunchy morsels of calamari, courgette, crab, anchovy, red mullet and prawn had been dipped and deep fried in the lightest of batters and betrayed not a hint of grease – a good reflection of the kitchen’s skill. Mazara prawns were perfectly supple and sweet; the crab tasty and moist; the Cornish squid tender; and the crowning glory, the firm and juicy Italian red mullet was rich and intoxicating and made me nostalgic of Cyprus (where, each summer, I routinely scoff as much of this lovely fish as I can stomach). The seafood medley was perfectly complemented with a simple seasoning of salt and lemon (thoughtfully provided in one of those nifty linen ‘lemon bags’). Delicious.
Antipasto 3: Charcoal Clams & Mussels. A bowl brimming with shellfish oozed with a lovely smoky scent of seafood and wine. The succulent clams and mussels tasted, as expected, earthy and woody, but also had a subtle spiciness. This came from the red chilli that flavoured the dish along with fennel seeds, parsley, chives and garlic. A grilled slice of bread came in useful when mopping up the herb-infused olive oil and white wine cocktail that collected at the bowl’s bottom.
Primo Piatto 1: Ricotta & Herb Tortelli with Butter & Sage. This was a very welcome gift from the kitchen. A homemade tortelli, loaded with ricotta, spinach and nettle filling, sat on buttery cheese and was topped with leaves of sage. The pasta, firm and supple, melted in the mouth to release its warm, creamy and nutty treasure. Each bite was soft, gooey and tasty.
Primo Piatto 2: Cavatelli with Seafood Sauce. Dense curls of pasta, mixed with diced shellfish and lying in white wine and Tabasco, were seasoned with garlic, parsley and bottarga. The pleasurably thick cavatelli were well matched by the soft prawns, squid and mussels. A pleasant, refreshing kick came from the warm Tabasco and the piquant bottarga (grey mullet roe).
Primo Piatto 3: Risotto with Courgette Flowers & Mazara Prawns. Sweet and tender Sicilian prawns and crunchy al dente courgette slices were mixed together in a runny risotto of firm rice. The vibrant colours on the dish – pink prawns, dark and light green courgette and golden-poppy risotto – appealed immediately. In the juice were melted courgette flowers whose sweetness complemented that of the shellfish. The rice, apparently of the best Northern Italian variety was cooked just right, had good firmness and tasted creamy and nutty.
Pesce: Fish Stew with Sardinian Fregola. A soup of mussels and clams, prepared with fregola, a Sardinian variety of couscous, was nourishing and moreish. The juicy shellfish was balanced by nutty, sundried durum wheat and the dish was flavoured with cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, thyme, chives and chilli. This was a rich and satisfying stew, packed full of tastes and textures; it practically ate itself.
Carne: Sicilian Rabbit. A whole rabbit was served in thick, rich russet gravy. Olives, onions, cherry tomatoes, shallots sultanas, nuts and fennel enriched the dish. The little rabbit’s natural gaminess was offset by a classic Sicilian agrodolce, sweet and sour, sugar and balsamic vinegar sauce. Burgundy and black olives, who effused a lovely, warm aroma, as well as pine nuts and pistachios, added further flavours. Caramelised shallots and delicious little Calabrian tropea onions accentuated the dish’s sweetness. However, given all these good, strong ingredients, I was surprised to find it all a little bland with the slightly dry rabbit as the biggest disappointment; I would certainly have preferred more intensity from this dish. Nevertheless, the sweet red tropea onions and tender fennel did impress me.
Dolce 1: Gelato alla Cioccolata, Nocciola e Vaniglia. A clear glass coupe was filled with generous scoops of chocolate, hazelnut and vanilla ice cream. Plain and unadorned, this unassuming dessert was just delicious. The chocolate, which I could smell before I tasted, was thick and luxurious; it was a trying, yet worthwhile, task prising each sticky scoop off my jealous spoon. The smooth hazelnut reminded me of Ferrero Rocher and the vanilla was simply classic, tasty vanilla. The consistency and temperature of this fresh handmade ice cream were perfect.
Dolce 2: Dark Chocolate Iced Tartufo. This dark chocolate gift sat wrapped in tight thin paper and heavily dusted with a similarly dark blanket of cocoa snow. The bitter, nutty chocolate was indulgent. Once again a tug of war ensued between my spoon and myself – a war I would not lose. Breaking through the truffle’s dark armour, inside I discovered a hidden trove of thick white chocolate. As I worked my way through this layer, I was again surprised to find buried deep within the sweet sphere a secret deposit of chocolate sauce and hazelnuts. Unfortunately, soon enough I had devoured it all and I was forced to endure some restless moments – the temptation to suck on the empty wrapper was nearly overwhelming – until my plate was finally removed.
Dolce 3: Spiced Blueberries Soufflé. A striking and attractive amethyst soufflé, exploding from its ivory imprisonment, was served alongside a richly sweet, but not sickly sauce of blueberries. The sugary snow dusted crust sheathed a smooth, soft centre. The taste was surprisingly mellow and slightly disappointing given the intense, exotic colour of this treat and spicy promise. If critical, I would also complain that the soufflé was uneven and toppling over.
Petit Fours: Chocolate truffles. Four hefty, densely dark chocolate truffles were a simple and delightful ending to the meal. Upon tasting, the first flavour was of intense bitter cocoa. This gave way to a creamy, velvet core. Each truffle was so delicate, it began to melt upon contact with my warm breath and instantly dissolved in my mouth; so fragile, I was almost afraid to touch them.
I was very impressed with the food here. It had been an awfully long time since my last Italian meal and L’Anima emphatically reminded me of what I had been missing. It was exactly what I expect good classic Italian cooking to be: uncomplicated, powerful, comfy and satisfying. The food indeed moves you: it is emotional eating, good-mood eating. The relaxingly simple dishes – you can determine the ingredients of each by just looking at it – will put you at ease, but should they not, then the disarming staff certainly will. There is no hurry here, no rush. My only criticism is the location: this restaurant should not be on a ground floor. It deserves more. It deserves to be elevated, to be somewhere high up. My suggestion: nestled in a cloud, perhaps?
1 Snowden Street, EC2A 2DQ
tel: 020 7422 7000
nearest tube: Liverpool Street