In the kitchen at L’Anima with Francesco Mazzei: Linguine Vongole
I was very excited, and also a little hot and bothered. I had to be in Liverpool St at 5pm, but I didn’t finish work until 5.30pm, and I work an hour away. Eish! What to do?! Thankfully, Francesco and his team were patient and flexible, and unfazed when I burst through the door, earlier than I thought possible, but later than arranged, red and frizzy and ready for vongole.
Vongole? What’s that? It’s one of the best Italian culinary offerings, and when nestled with linguine, a real treat. Fresh and lively, salty and sweet, fruity and toothsome, you can’t beat it.
I’ve cooked this at home, but not for a while. It’s one of those things that has to be done right, great vongole from an even better fishmonger, great pasta and some time. That’s all. Like anything else, there are ways to do it to do it and to do it right you need to adhere to the rules, but really it’s not that complicated, and once you know the steps, it’s utterly achievable. It’s a weeknight dish should you choose it to be one or a perfect quick weekend treat.
Italian cuisine is one of my favourites; it’s so fresh and full of flavour. Loaded with character and variety, how could you not love it? I love the attention to detail, the adherence to quality and the sociable nature of it all. I love that everyone is confident about food, we should be here too. Everyone has a secret family recipe, knows local wines and heartily recommends favourites. They want to take you to their favourite places, and share their culinary heritage, for they are very proud of it, and so they should be. So, I wasn’t surprised when Francesco seemed to represent all of these qualities, fizzing with enthusiasm and passion, and ready to share his knowledge.
L’Anima is a lovely space, airy and bright, perhaps leaning on stark, but very stylish. We started at the bar with some snacks and a prosecco, and then progressed to the kitchen, which was stacked with food and chefs, and while busy-busy, it was very calm. Waiting by one of the sinks were enormous and very fresh clams, that had been rinsed to rid them of any sand that they had retained from the sea bed, they were ready to become vongole.
Francesco whizzed through the recipe, it really is very quick. Patient and attentive, occasionally making reference to how red I was, with a chuckle. I was at pains to explain that I am Irish and can’t cope with extremes of anything – hot or cold. Ireland is mild and temperate, and this is what my body demands, but rarely receives. So, there you go! I am doomed to have a big red face in warm environments. But that’s ok.
The vongole had already been cleaned and were gleaming and ready for action. Using a bronze cut linguine, Francesco starts the dish with a light south Italian olive oil, that won’t over power the clams. The pasta is put on, and some garlic slices and chilli are gently fried. The vongole are added shortly after with a glass of white wine, and cooked gently until they start to open. The pasta is added with some of it’s starchy cooking water, creating an emulsion with the vongole sauce as it is stirred. The pasta looks to be about half cooked at this stage, and Francesco stirs it, until it it’s al dente and nestled is a beautiful creamy sauce. I love this technique of cooking pasta by absorption, a technique that delivers a much superior pasta, and costs nothing but time and a littler exertion. Not unlike the creaminess that you get from risotto rice, when you give it all of that care and attention.
The dish is finished with a handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, and is ready to eat. We had a taste, and I was in heaven.
I was loathe to leave the kitchen and that luscious linguine behind, but Francesco assured me that I would have some more soon, over dinner in the private room, where 8 of us gathered and participated in a feast.
A gorgeous starter of muscles cooked in a josper oven, a powerful charcoal oven, just briefly, for a minute or so until they popped open. They retained their memory of the sea, in those last drops of sea water that they had held onto from when they were caught. These were superb, a real highlight, tasting of fire and water with embers from the josper oven and sea water, with a meaty mussel embracing it in the middle, and some delicious n’duja sausage with some fennel seeds.
Our linguine vongole escapades were next. Three different types, all perfectly executed, although one fusion one, while lovely, was not to my taste. I prefer the more familiar rustic Italian flavours of garlic, chilli and tomato. We had a lovely wine with the linguine, a delicious Soave, so good, I proclaimed that it was worth going that night to discover that wine alone.
We finished with a frozen chocolate truffle. An icy large truffle with chocolate sauce oozing out of the middle. Delicious. I know that word is over used but I don’t care, because that’s what it was.
And there you have it. A perfect evening. Linguine vongole is on the bar menu at L’Anima, it’s well worth a try with that glorious Soave. Francesco Mazzei is certainly one to watch and I look forward to trying L’Anima again.
I will make this dish soon and post the recipe. Give it a go, there or at home. You’ll be very happy with yourself.