Francesco Mazzei looks like a chef. Maybe this sounds obvious, but so many chefs now look like chemists or geography teachers or investment bankers that it’s a relief to see in Mazzei’s dark Calabrian features and slicked-back hair: a full-blooded, central-casting Italian Chef.
I know, it’s no way to judge the cooking. But it’s a start, just as wine tastes richer for being poured by an insouciant Gaul.
With L’Anima in the City and Sartoria in Mayfair, Mazzei has built a reputation for fiery, deep-flavoured southern Italian classics, fit for their local clientele and priced accordingly. If those restaurants were business-class, however, for his new trattoria, Radici, he has walked it back to premium economy.
Radici sits opposite the Almeida Theatre, off Upper Street in Islington. For those who don’t know it, Upper Street is a mile of homeware shops, estate agents, and terrible restaurants which – if anything – have somehow got worse as the rest of the capital’s offer has improved.
We can make exception for Oldroyd and Bellanger (and Ottolenghi, if we drearily must), but the rest of the strip is a graveyard of chains, tacky tacos and pointless pizza.
Upper Street lowers expectations, in other words, so it’s a relief to be ushered into a tasteful, unfussy room, with a low ceiling, yes, but one that doesn’t feel too oppressive. There are proper chairs and proper tables, with a wide glass frontage so you can exactly time your run to the performance across the road.
The basic requirement of a theatre restaurant is that you can take your parents without anti-anxiety medication. This means no queues, no stools, no deafening rock music, no offal-based tasting menus.
Mazzei knows the drill and the Radici menu is suitably relaxing. In fact, the list is so straight-bat that it almost doesn’t bear repeating, and those wanting fireworks have come to the wrong place. But its familiarity shouldn’t be mistaken for complacency. A common pitfall for a theatre restaurant is that having delivered on the bare essentials, like a pub in a railway station, its captive audience excuses its quality.
Not a bit of it. We are so used to being ripped off by antipasti that the overflowing slab of salami and cheese with which we are presented here comes as a rich, fatty surprise, a welcome one at that. We merrily shell peas from their charred pods.
Mistakenly we order two sides of zucchini fritti: crisp, salty little strands of vegetable, which come ladled so expansively into their pots that we can’t finish them, try valiantly as we do.
Further down are five pleasingly pastas: a ragu, a seafood fettuccine, tortellini stuffed with thick burrata. Bubbling, leopard-crusted pizzas are slung out of a wood oven in the middle of the room.
The recent tradition is to specialise in one of these groups: to be a pizza place, or a pasta place, or, probably, somewhere in Brixton, a zucchini friti joint. Radici is a reminder that a decent restaurant – and Mazzei is far more than a decent chef – can do it all. That’s the point.
My involtino, a squat roll-mop of calf’s liver, is delivered with a smoking twig of rosemary, just the faintest of mementoes that there is a great deal of skill beneath these polished surfaces.
The prices are as soothing as the menu. If you work in the area, presumably as an estate agent, you can have a lunchtime pizza and aperol spritz for a tenner. Normally the pizzas top out at £12, and nothing is above £18.50.
On a hot summer evening we ate three delightful courses, finishing with an obligatory afogato, and drank gallons of cold rosé, for £40 a head. How very un-Upper Street.
Radici means ‘roots’, but also ‘rooted’, and that seems exactly right: Mazzei has created a unpretentious, friendly room, with flavours earthed in southern Italy which lead to unpretentious, friendly bills.
Like Mazzei, Radici looks the part and acts it, too. If only the same guarantees could be made across the road.