In early June, Corinthia Palace issued a statement that Chef Francesco Mazzei had partnered with Corinthia Palace and “with his culinary team will be serving Italian classics and signature favourites throughout their residency, bringing a taste of southern Italy to Villa Corinthia in the hotel, until December.”
This article is a short pen portrait of this interesting and colourful character: Chef Francesco Mazzei.
Some people miss a vital cue in life and fail to heed a life-changing suggestion. They miss the bus and may never realise their dream.
Others will grasp a bit of advice, make it theirs and never look back. These fulfil their yearnings, and will always recall that magic transformational moment. Undoubtedly, Chef Francesco Mazzei belongs to this second category.
Barely fourteen, he was working at his uncle’s gelateria in Calabria when a renowned Italian chef, Angelo Sabetta, who happened to pass by, was stunned by Francesco’s Mangia e Bevi concoction of sorbet and fruit. When Angelo Sabetta heard that Francesco wanted to become a hotel manager, the former quickly enticed Francesco to become a chef. “You’ve got the touch.” Those magic words lit up Francesco’s heart and acted as a catalyst to realise his ambition to become a chef. Not any chef, but an outstanding one!
Francesco was fully aware he had to leave the Calabrian shores to widen his horizons. After completing his studies at the catering college and opening his fish restaurant at 18, he moved to Rome in 1992 with the Grand Hotel and from there took the much-coveted step to move to London and learn English. He joined The Dorchester in Mayfair and then returned to Italy to work with Michelin-starred La Terrazza dell’Eden. Next in line was opening his Santini restaurants in Edinburgh and Milano, followed by the Royal Sporting Club in Bangkok and Franco’s on Jeremy’s Street and St Alban in London, not to count other venues spread around the world and joining Alan Yau with who he bonded strongly as a friend and as an inspirational character.
Calabria and Southern Italy were never far from his heart, blood, mind and spirit. He carried with him the Calabrian tastes, dishes, and culinary experiences. When he opened L’Anima in the City of London, he introduced with grace but with conviction and much drive the southern Italian culinary art. He slowly but surely donned the ambassadorial role of that region’s cuisine. So he found himself advising the Calabrian authorities on the exportation of Calabrian goods and foods into the UK. This also popularised the spicy spreadable pork sausage ’nduja, which additionally became an attraction in Francesco’s nduja pizza for Pizza Express.
After L’Anima, where he had forged a strong and entrenched presence for seven years, he joined Sartoria in Mayfair in 2015 as a chef patron, naturally carrying with him the dream and excitement of la cucina Italiana. And then he opened southern Italian restaurants Radici in Islington and Fiume in Battersea.
In 2015 Chef Francesco Mazzei published his first cookbook Mezzogiorno. This Italian word means noon, but it also means Southern Italy, known as Meridione or Mezzogiorno. And naturally, this second meaning is the spirit and topic of this book. It has been hailed by many critics as a book not to be missed …if you can get hold of a copy. The book is a collection of 80 unadulterated Italian recipes Francesco extracted from his childhood memories and a lifelong search for that region’s particular tastes and cuisine.
Francesco uses the same core Italian ingredients in most of the recipes, but he uses them in novel, creative ways. So one may even produce a variety of recipes from the same ingredients.
This book makes fascinating reading because, apart from the excellent and eye-catching photography, it contains interesting information on the ingredients and easy-to-be-followed recipes. Let me quote from this book to give one example:
“On Zitoni alla Norma:
‘Ziti’ means ‘fiance’, so it’s probably no surprise that this type of pasta is one of the main dishes served at weddings. Ziti are long, thin rectangular tubes, and zitoni (or penne candela as they’re also called) are their big brother, wider and more versatile as they’re big enough to be stuffed, or as the Sicilians do, made into pies or savoury pasta ‘cakes’. Pasta alla Norma is one of Sicily’s most famous recipes, made with several of the island’s sun-soaked riches – aubergine, tomato and basil. Supposedly, the dish was named in the nineteenth century, when theatre director and writer Nino Martoglio tasted the sauce and was so impressed by it that he compared it to Vincenzo Bellini’s opera masterpiece, Norma. The reasons I return to this dish time and again are simple: my wife is Sicilian, and my children love slurping zitoni, so it keeps everybody happy. You need to buy dried pasta for this recipe, never fresh.”
Then he introduces the ingredients and the cooking procedure in an easily intelligible sequence.
One review on BBC Radio 2 describes this book as “Magnificent…One of the most important cookbooks of southern Italian cuisine by one of today’s most important chefs.” Additionally, Mail on Sunday comments: “A sumptuous, elegant and utterly splendid tome…a book to cook from for the rest of one’s life. Magnifico.” Equally flattering is Square Meal Magazine: “This glorious book is an ode to authentic Italian cuisine.”
Francesco Mazzei is a 3-D character who has overgrown the confines of a fully-fledged Chef Patron; he is a personality who exudes warmth and has transmuted his culinary bravura into an asset which assumes an ambassadorial role for the Mezzogiorno. His regular appearances on BBC shows, including Saturday Kitchen, MasterChef and The James Martin Show, apart from being a regular at Taste of London festivals, have also made him a public figure who has won the attention and simpatia of so many.
What further ennobles this gentleman is his public-spirited nature, his drive to repay the society that has been good to him, and his readiness to assist people in need. It gives us great pleasure to proudly highlight a few of his initiatives.
In December 2022, a dinner was held at the Palazzo Altieri in Piazza del Gesu` in Rome to collect funds to acquire and organise a fully-fledged professional kitchen and a cookery school for the children in Cairo’s Oasis of Mercy. This kitchen would also be a highly professional school to enhance the children’s future and offer them the chance to find work as chefs. The person who offered his consultancy and tuition gratis for all this was none other than Francesco Mazzei.
During the lockdown caused by COVID, whilst many were lamenting their losses, Francesco Mazzei rolled up his sleeves and thought of others. He used his restaurants Sartoria, Radici and Fiume and staff to provide free lunches to the personnel of hospitals in London, that is, doctors, nurses, porters, employees, cleaners and any other person working there. He also joined the initiative Help the Hungry organised by The Independent and provided free food for 300 homeless, unemployed and persons with disabilities.
These are just a few examples; a morsel of a much more extensive menu of love.
His various humanitarian initiatives and unstinting work to internationally publicise Italian food and the Mezzogiorno earned him a well-deserved national decoration. In 2019, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella. What a man!
So Francesco became a Cavaliere and, what’s more, a Cavaliere Calabrese. I recall another Cavaliere Calabrese who lived in Malta for many years and died and is buried in Malta, leaving behind him numerous works of art in Malta: the knight artist Mattia Preti (1613-1699). I do hope Francesco will find the time during his Malta sojourn to visit St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and be thrilled with the sight of his compatriot’s masterpiece.
Alexandra Pisani, General Manager of Corinthia Palace, was spot on when she said: “It is an honour to have such talents as Francesco Mazzei and his team with us in Malta, which will further position Corinthia Palace as a top culinary destination. He is much more than a chef. Francesco is passionate about celebrating the culinary arts, and he is a philanthropic inspiration who is dedicated to bringing about positive changes in the world.”
Francesco Mazzei recalls that when he was eight, he yearned for Levis and a pair of Nike shoes, but his family could not afford it. So he asked his uncle for a job in his massive ice cream shop. His uncle jokingly informed him he could start on the morrow at eight in the morning, but Francesco did not take the matter lightly. He was there on time and started earning money to buy his Levis and shoes. And that is where his exciting adventure started. What if his parents just gave in and bought him the Levis and shoes? We will never know the answer. Reality knows no alternatives. But we know for sure that when Francesco Mazzei grew up into a man who could afford much more than Levis and Nike, he constantly retained in his mind, heart and active attention those who considered such things well beyond their reach.