Francesco Mazzei is distracted. Assorted bits and pieces are being ushered around the restaurant and into the kitchen, as the chef – dressed in casual t-shirt and jeans – hurriedly taps away on his phone between conversations with his team. It is the day of re-opening for Sartoria – the Savile Row restaurant that Mazzei has taken on after seven successful years at L’Anima, the chef’s slick City spot.
“Sorry, lots going on here,” he says putting his phone down and turning his attention to me.
Over the past seven years, Mazzei has used his talent to make L’Anima one of London’s premier Italian restaurants. A success with the critics as well as legions of city workers, L’Anima showcased the culinary traditions of Southern Italy and, in particular, the chef’s native region, Calabria.
Being such a hit, Mazzei’s departure from L’Anima in March of last year was unexpected. By June, Mazzei had been announced as chef patron of D&D Group’s Savile Row Italian, Sartoria. Exciting news for Mayfair – but why the move?
“It was time to move on,” explains Mazzei, his warm, expressive voice contrasting a sometimes-stern look. “Like every good chef, running or managing a restaurant in the West End – particularly in Mayfair – is always a dream.”
Sartoria opened last month after undergoing an extensive refurbishment overseen by David d’Almada, responsible for the décor at Dover Street’s The Arts Club. Where the restaurant’s former incarnation was starchy, Mazzei’s Sartoria oozes Italian glamour.
This won’t be the first time Mazzei has worked under the D&D umbrella (the group which operates venues including Quaglino’s and Avenue). In 1996, Mazzei arrived in London to work at The Dorchester; but when his plans fell through, he was pointed towards D&D’s Cantina del Ponte in Shad Thames, where he was employed as a pasta chef. Now, Mazzei is looking after the menu at Cantina del Ponte alongside his main venture, Sartoria.
In the intervening years, Mazzei says that he tried to work with D&D “many times and it never happened” – notably, Mazzei turned down an offer from Sartoria in 2006, choosing to help restaurateur duo Chris Corbin and Jeremy King open St Alban in the West End. “Finally, in the end, this opportunity came,” he says of his appointment at Sartoria. “I’m so happy to be here now. Let’s see what the critics say!”
Given Mazzei’s track record, he needn’t be nervous. He has been praised for highlighting the simplicity of Italian cooking, selecting only the best seasonal produce from Britain and Italy to create his refined, classic dishes.
While L’Anima was deeply rooted in South Italian cooking, Mazzei wants to bring elements of all of Italy’s diverse regions to the dishes at Sartoria. “Of course, it will be South Italian because I’m Calabrese; but I also want to give the best risotto, the best vitello Milanese, the best salt crusted sea bass – all these Italian dishes, with a twist.”
Mazzei has a mantra for his cooking style: “Mamma’s cooking with chef hands.” He uses it liberally throughout our conversation, and it does encapsulate his relaxed yet refined dishes. He explains: “My cooking is straightforward – very simple, but using the best ingredients. This food has got a ‘mamma feeling’; but it also has the chef technique, which is what makes it special.”
It’s a formula that has gained him respect from his contemporaries as well as customers. Over the years, Mazzei has advised on various projects from restaurateur Alan Yau including Hakkasan and Yauatcha. He has also worked alongside the aforementioned Corbin and King and with D&D’s Des Gunewardena and David Loewi.
“I like working with people who know more than I do, to learn,” says Mazzei, humbly. “Alan Yau, Chris and Jeremy as well as Des and David: they’re people you like to work with because they listen to you, they love what you do; but they also give you a lot.”
Mazzei clearly sees Yau as a good friend as well as a mentor. “If he needs my brain or I need his advice, we will always help each other,” says Mazzei with fondness. “If he does a tasting, he asks me to come – even if it’s Chinese – because he believes I have a very good palette; likewise, I believe that the guy is a real genius – like Chris and Jeremy, and Des and David. There’s a great mutual respect.”
With the chef’s star in the ascendance, Mazzei has found himself in demand on popular foodie shows including BBC’s Saturday Kitchen and MasterChef. Like many in the industry, Mazzei recoils at the thought of being known as a ‘TV chef’; but he is aware of the effect appearing on these shows can have on business.
“Let’s be honest: TV puts bums on seats,” he says matter-of-factly, before admitting that he enjoys the experience. “I do like it. I get to see my friends: James Martin, James Winter (BAFTA Award-winning producer) and Gregg Wallace. I go there without pressure now. I hope I can carry on doing TV like this, without it being too much.”
Mazzei is using his growing platform to shine a light on Calabria, his home region. He acts as an advisor to the Calabrese authorities to help them promote the region’s produce and culinary traditions internationally. Mazzei’s restaurants are indeed a stage to showcase what Calabria does best; the chef brought ‘Nduja (spicy, spreadable sausage) into the restaurant mainstream. He revels in telling me about the unexpected specialities of his region. “You do not associate spicy food with Italian culture, but South Italians eat lots of spicy food – chilli is our main thing,” says Mazzei. He also tells me that Calabria is the biggest producer of liquorice in the world.
“My mission is to bring all this forward. With my cooking, with my talent, with my knowledge and with my experience, I’m trying to help the Calabrese to talk about food rather than mafia. It’s a mission.”
For now though, Mazzei only has Mayfair on his mind. “I love this location and I love to be in Savile Row. I could never afford to hang out in Mayfair before – but probably now, yes,” he says with a laugh. As our conversation comes to a close, I ask if he has a favourite Mayfair restaurant. Unsurprisingly, Mazzei jumps to his old friend Yau. “I had an amazing dinner at Park Chinois – oh my God! It blew my mind.”
With Mazzei’s pedigree, I expect the same will be said of Sartoria.