Inspired by his debut cookbook, Mezzogiorno, we caught up with Calabrian-born Francesco Mazzei, head chef and owner of Italian restaurant L'Anima. Find out what mistakes he thinks Brits make when it comes to Italian food, his favourite cookbooks, dream dinner party guests and more!
Can you tell us a bit more about your book Mezzogiorno?
It’s all about Southern Italian cooking. Mezzogiorno means half day, it means lunchtime, and it’s also the name of the poorest part of Italy. The cooking is all about cucina povera which means Mammas cooking with chefs hands.
If you had to pick one recipe to show off what the book is all about, which one would it be?
It would have to be pasta chijna – it’s a classic dish usually cooked by mums on a weekend and they clean out the fridge to make this dish – salami, vegetables, anything. It’s a feast of flavours.
What advice would you give to someone looking to cook authentic Italian food for the first time?
The great thing about Italian food is its simplicity, seasonality and good taste. My advice is follow the season, respect the ingredients, and follow the recipes step by step.
What are the biggest mistakes that you find Brits make when it comes to Italian food?
I think they underestimate the greatness of Italian cuisine. It makes me crazy when someone says how easy it is to cook pasta or pizza, and you have to show them how great a fresh spaghetti pomodoro is or how to make the best pizza. It’s about showing respect to great ingredients.
Do you come from a long line of great cooks or are you the first passionate foodie in your family?
My grandfather Francesco was a chef in the army, but he’s the only one, and one of my uncles owns the biggest gelateria in Southern Italy. But the whole family cooks – we fish, hunt, grow vegetables, make salami etc. Our whole life is about food.
Here at The Happy Foodie, we're somewhat obsessed with cookbooks. Can you tell us a bit about your favourite?
Ottolenghi is a great book – it’s new and refreshing, and the recipes are easy to follow. Semplice is the best Italian cookbook so far. Also Hunan because I’m a big fan of everything they do in and out of their restaurants, and their cookbook is fantastic.
Who would be your dream dinner party guest and what would you cook for him/her?
I’d say my dream dinner party table would be Stanley Tucci, Massimo Bottura, Sofia Loren, Monica Bellucci, Claudio Silvestrin and Michelle Obama. The menu would be a lobster sibaryta for the antipasti; pasta chijna for primi; secondi definitely my home cured baccala in liquorice; and we’d end with my selection of ice creams and sorbets.
Is there an ingredient you are really enjoying cooking with at the moment?
Being a chef I have a lot of preferred ingredients, especially depending on the season. Right now in July it has to be courgette flowers, but I can’t live without black fennel seeds.