Francesco Mazzei strides into the dining room of his new restaurant, L'Anima (Italian for soul), calls out a genial "ciao", settles himself at a table and orders a coffee. When it comes, he takes one sip, pronounces, "this is horrible," and orders another one. "Espresso is key, you should feel good drinking it," he insists.
Mazzei talks rapidly. He's Italian, Italians are fussy about their coffee and this is his restaurant. So Mazzei is entitled to be pernickety. It might not be great for his staff at this particular moment, but the incident is indicative of Mazzei's obsessiveness. It bodes well for the 34-year-old in launching his first restaurant, especially as it's located near Liverpool Street in the City, a notoriously difficult market to gauge for fine dining.
Mazzei has form, however, most notably in his previous job as head chef at St Alban for renowned restaurant-duo Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. And he has been careful not to rely just on the ever-straitening company budgets. Main courses start at £9.50, with sea bass at £25. "I don't want to scare anyone off if they want to come in for a non-expenses meal," says Mazzei, who's expecting an average spend per head of about £35. "It's our job to make people come back."
It's a wise approach, as prospective customers can easily jump in a cab to competitors at Smithfield or in the West End. And there's the credit crunch to contend with, too. "We are worried, about it," he admits, "but we're offering a reasonable price. I don't think we'll suffer."
Further, his business backer is American property developer Peter Morano, one of the key men behind the original development of Canary Wharf in the 1980s. Morano is an astute businessman and has an influential network of potential customers. Most importantly, he has deep pockets and owns the building in which L'Anima is located.
A four-month delay has been frustrating for Mazzei, however, something that came about following planning wrangles. Mazzei left St Alban last September and chefs tend to get stir crazy when they're out of the kitchen for long, let alone six months. "It's been a bit difficult," he admits. "I've changed the menu to reflect two seasons already."
In some ways, though, the waiting has worked in his favour. "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."
We're sitting in the 80-seat dining room of L'Anima, on an exceptionally dull late May day. The restaurant has grey slate walls as well, which could add to the gloom, but these are fortunately lightened up by gleaming white leather and chrome chairs and plenty of glass. Designed by Milan-born Claudio Silvestrin, better known for his art gallery designs and his work on the Armani shops, the restaurant has an indefinable Italian style. One fears for those white leather seats, however.
But so far so good. Alan Yau - someone who Mazzei regards as a mentor - was among the guests for a soft opening dinner. They opened the short-lived Anda on Baker Street together, and Mazzei has consulted for the Hong Kong-born supremo on pâtisserie, among other things. The two clearly get on.
But what about Corbin and King? The pair weren't at the opening dinner, but Mazzei is hoping they'll pop in soon. "We've still got a good relationship - Chris and I go out to lunch occasionally. It's key to respect people in this business," he says firmly, with a smile.
Yet Mazzei's departure from the restaurant was a surprise to industry watchers. "It wasn't my intention to leave when I did and Chris and Jeremy were a bit surprised, but they understood. We've always been open with each other," he says.
He's definitely enjoying his new role, though, and the change in emphasis at L'Anima appears to be to his liking. "This has been a completely different experience," he stresses. "At St Alban I was in the kitchen here I've been involved in everything from design, to buying, to menus - it's been a chance for me to express myself."
The food at L'Anima is more focused, too - away from the generic Italian and comfort food at St Alban. His home region is Calabria, but the dishes encompass favourites from Sicily and Sardinia, too. Dairy is rarely used in those parts of the world, but vegetables, fruit and seafood are common: lemons, sweet, sun-ripened tomatoes garlic artichoke octopus and squid. And there's often a spiciness in the food too, a result of the Moorish influence from north Africa. This combines in what Mazzei hopes will become a signature dish for L'Anima - zitoni pasta with n'duja and aubergine. "It's the type of lunch your mum cooks for you," he explains.
Other southern specialities to watch out for include a Sardinian fish stew with fregola (a semolina-based grain), sea bass baked in a salt crust, creamy burrata with wood-roasted aubergine, a Sardinian crab salad and a Sicilian rabbit stew. There's also a flavour-packed early summer soup, warming for a chilly summer's day but bursting with fresh herbs and courgette flowers, peas, basil, asparagus, and broad beans. Among the desserts, a peach roasted in a wood oven stands out, with a trace of lavender infusion and an amaretto crunch picking up on the almond taste notes left by the fruit stone.
Mazzei's kitchen brigade comprises 17 of his countrymen, but out front, it's a more international affair. French, Polish, Brazilian, Australian and Italian make up the 20-plus team that looks after the restaurant and stylish 32-seat bar. Many of his key personnel have worked with Mazzei before at St Alban, including head chef Luca Terraneo, restaurant manager Patrick Oberto and sommelier/assistant manager Gal Zohar.
Zohar pits octopus, served sprinkled with rosemary and rocket, with an aromatic Leda Bianco, Aneri from the Alto-Adige, for instance. Zohar is anxious to promote small Italian wine producers on the 100-bin list - but mindful that the clientele may want other things, he and Mazzei have left 30% of the list a mixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese and New World.
Mazzei plans to bring in breakfast, a chef's table in the kitchen, and perhaps an extension of the dining room. There are plenty of things to improve, it seems, but all in good time. "First of all, I want to do 400 covers a day, keep the standard high, get the place full and get the customers back. If I can do this, I'm a good chef." And, it might be said, a fine restaurateur, too.
L'Anima is a joint venture between chef Francesco Mazzei and City of London property developer Peter Morano, who owns the freehold of the building that houses the restaurant. The investment, to date, Morano says, is "a few million" - but he won't be drawn on precise figures. Morano organises the finances Mazzei is in charge of the restaurant - he's on a salary but he also gets a share of the profit.
Both men have been at pains to get their project right, delaying opening rather than launching before they felt that L'Anima and its staff were ready for public scrutiny. Both concede that until it is fully up and running, they won't know if it truly works.
However, Morano is confident there is a market for a stylish, Italian restaurant, despite the economic situation. "The lawyers make money if the market's going up or going down," he says. "There are some very average restaurants where you can easily spend £85 for two. I've talked to people around here and they're all very excited about what we're doing."
Things to bear in mind as a chef opening a restaurant
Fish stew with Sardinian fregola
100g squid - cleaned, cut into squares and braised (with garlic, thyme, white wine, 1tbs tomato paste)
3g garlic, diced
Thyme, to taste
Salt and black pepper
150g fish stock
60g Mazara shrimps
30g cherry tomatoes
30g tomato sauce
20ml extra virgin olive oil
Sweat the garlic, chilli, shallots, and thyme in a little olive oil. Add the braised squid, dried fregola, a pinch of salt, and fish stock. Leave the fregola to simmer for about six minutes. When it is almost cooked, add the mussels, clams, shrimps, cherry tomatoes and tomato sauce.
When the clams and mussels are open, remove the pan from the heat and finish with the chopped herbs, black pepper, and extra virgin olive oil.
Fregola pasta is a close relative to couscous. Both fregola and couscous are fine beads of semolina - fregola is prepared by rubbing semolina and water together, then lightly toasting the beads. This gives it a wonderful nutty flavour. It is also rougher and grainier than couscous.
The origins of fregola pasta are difficult to trace. In Italy the primary region that uses it is Sardinia. Yet the pasta is so similar to couscous that there are several theories placing fregola's origins in the Middle East.
Vermentino di Gallura Arakena, Cantina del Vermentino 2005
An intense wine is needed to match the rich, spicy flavours in this stew, hence this wine made with Vermentino grapes, grown in the north-east of Sardinia and harvested late. It's a rich and complex wine full of ripe fruit flavours.
L'Anima, 1 Snowdon Street, London EC2A 2DQ. Tel: 020 7422 7000. Opening: Mon-Fri noon-2.30pm, 7pm-midnight.
L'Anima... Birth of a restaurant