Francesco Mazzei is one of those chefs who is largely unknown beyond the world of food, but revered within it. This is a curious phenomenon of the age of celebrity chefs: so many of them have entered our lives, saturating television listings in the process, that some punters presume a chef has to be famous to be exceptional. Millions of us save up to eat in expensive places because we hope a little bit of Gordon or Jamie or Michel's stardust will be sprinkled over the remoulade. It's the celebrity premium, and we pay through our noses for it.
Mazzei, on the other hand, is the kind of chap searched out by other chefs because they want something special. He worked in the family ice-cream parlour from the age of eight, set up a fish restaurant by his early twenties, and chefed in Rome before moving to England and the Dorchester. There he apprenticed with the great Willi Elsener and his successor Henry Brosi, before taking on the role of head chef for Christopher Corbin and Jeremy King at St Alban and becoming chummy with Alan Yau.
But today Mazzei is most celebrated for his L'Anima (Italian for "soul"), in the City of London. Recently he expanded with a café next door, but the main attraction remains the vast dining room with high ceilings, separated from a monstrously loud bar area by two big window panes and a corridor. Yet, despite this division, the noise is overwhelming as we enter, and shortly after sitting down, we ask to move to a table further away, in a quieter corner.
The menu is exactly as you'd expect in this part of town, which is to say, not cheap. At least the food – except, that is, for a couple of misses – is generally excellent.
We start with the fritto misto – a selection of fresh seafoods fried in a light batter. It's decent and there's lots of it, which is a relief because it's £18.50. We also order the battuta di manzo, pounded raw beef with black truffle (£16.50). Think of this as a pungent steak tartare, with delicious slivers of tender meat coated in an acidic dressing. It's really good stuff, as is the polpo a la plancha (£16.50) – seared octopus with fresh cocco beans and n'duja. These beans, not to be confused with varieties of cocoa, have thick skins and a soft texture, making them ready receptacles for the spicy hit of sausage in the n'duja.
The mains are split into pasta dishes, fish, meat and specials from the Josper oven. The calves' liver with pancetta (£20.50) is overcooked, alas; rather than pink and juicy, it's spilt over into tough and dry territory. The saffron risotto with chicken liver and black cabbage (£18.50), meanwhile, genuinely looks as though the chef, perhaps in the middle of a tough shift, was having a laugh. There is no other way to say this: served on a flat dish that makes it go cold quickly, the risotto is decorated with vegetables arranged in the shape of a face. And although it's skilfully cooked, it's not easy to take risotto seriously when it appears to be smiling at you.
Making up for it, however, is a wonderful wild boar ragu with juniper and pistachio (£17.50), flaky chunks of piping hot meat in between ribbons of al dente pasta and crunchy nuts; and the best dish of all, a fettuccine with ceps, sausage and black truffle. Mazzei clearly has a thing for truffle at this time of year, and its musty twang does rather dominate the meal. But here it is an exquisite accompaniment, and necessary to justify the £25 price tag.
That, I'm afraid to say, is how much you'll pay for many of the fish and meat dishes. Desserts, meanwhile, include a £10 zabaglione and a £15.50 chocolate dome; although you can get decent white and red wine options for £22.
For the suits streaming in from the nearby temples of Mammon, that's chump change, of course. But as we leave I can't help but feel again the incongruity between the City types who fill this place and Mazzei's Italian style.
He's a classy guy, but it feels to me that he belongs somewhere that draws out that class, that he's out of place in the City. His menu and pedigree are La Dolce Vita, but his restaurant is Wall Street. If Gordon Gekko had a canteen in EC2, this would be it. 1
L'anima, 1 Snowden Street, London ec2, Tel: 020 7422 7000
£125 for two, with wine
Four more: Foodie notes from the past week
Railroad, an excellent café in Homerton, east London, serves up this lovely (if a little too sweet) spread, infused with vanilla pods.
Honey & Co
Finally made it to this much-vaunted, tiny room in Warren Street. Exquisite Israeli grub, not least the best falafels in London.
Salmon scrambled eggs
Weekend breakfast means eggs on toast. We chucked some frozen salmon in, and it worked a treat.
Handed a bag of these recently, and realised I'd forgotten how good they were. Chocolate plus peanut = near perfection.