When Californian property developer and first-time restaurateur Peter Marano opened L’Animain 2009, the City was in the depths of recession, and Marano joked that in lieu of bankers wining and dining on their bonuses, insolvency specialists would eat there. What he didn’t count on was that other professionals living and working on the Shoreditch-City border, where L’Anima occupies an out-of-the-way nook, would flock to the place. They were lured by tales of excellent southern Italian food, all of it finely wrought but without losing any of its ‘soul’ (‘l’Anima’ is Italian for soul). Since then L’Anima has gone from strength to strength, now with Sardinian chef Lello Favuzzi heading up the kitchen, mixing ingredients and flavours from Sicily, Sardinia, Calabria and Puglia, and, if he’s in the mood, adding a Moorish twist.
The vibe at L’Anima is white: white floors, white walls, white tables, white chairs. And yet somehow it is not in the least clinical. L’Anima may look austere, but its feel is distinctly welcoming – like Warren Beaty’s paradise in the movie Heaven’s Gate. There’s warm lighting, vast windows, a moody, mirrored bar and friendly, informal staff: sitting in L’Anima you feel uplifted rather than cleansed. And the transport begins when you sample the bone dry Aneri house Prosecco (£9 per glass), accompanied by a homely bread basket and succulent green olives from Puglia.
What We Had: We sampled seven dishes from Chef Lello’s then new autumn menu, many of them light and maritime – as if still clinging to the last days of summer. But to kick off we tried a winter warmer: two beetroot tortelli, huddled in the middle of a vast plate, and twisted up with small cuts of yellow turnip, a few leaves of wilted spinach and fried sage. The dish was almost too beautiful to eat, but the tasting was as good as the looking. Inside the pillowy soft pasta parcels was a smoky burrata filling perfectly set off by a balsamic reduction. To cut the richness, we had a glass of crisp 2014 Vermentino from Isola dei Nuraghi (£6.20).
A medley of fish dishes followed. Grilled octopus with smoked aubergine purée, and crumbled ricotta mustia (£16.50) was paired with a Terre Nobili made from the Greco grape (£10.50). This had a strong scent of sherry on the nose and was robust enough to stand up to the earthy notes of the dish.
A sublime plate, in which a couple of melt-in-the-mouth Mazara prawns, grapefruit and burnt leek, accompanied a generous dollop of creamy stracciatella (£15.00), was paired with a buttery, apple-scented chardonnay from Puglia, called Pietrabianca (£13.50). In other hands this dish might have easily not worked. Add watercress oil and smoky grated Sardinian bottarga, and you’ve got a formidable number of ingredients in play. But it is a testimony to Lello’s talent that it achieved harmony and balance.
The final ‘starter’ was a dish of Malloredus (a traditional Sardinian pasta dish) and blue lobster in a delicate shellfish broth, dotted with pointy, seared florets of Romanesco cauliflower (£17.50). Malloreddus is more like gnocci than pasta, and its black colour derives from the ‘burnt flour’ that is left after the rest of the wheat has been used up. After the big flavours of the tortelli and octopus, this was a delicate and homely offering. It tasted of the sea. With it, we drank a pleasantly floral Bardolino rosé from the Veneto (£8.50).
The meat offering was a slow-cooked piece of pig cheek coated in a jus that had been reduced down to rich, glossy perfection to deliver a deep, meaty kick (£21.50). The yin and yang of the dish was achieved with celeriac purée and a tasty smear of sweet Mirto reduction (a Sardinian liqueur ). It was properly autumnal and hearty. The red wine that Sommelier Gian Marco chose to accompany the pork was complex and more-ish; a 2013 Aglianico “Core”, that sells for £14 a glass. A little of this wine goes a long way, but I could happily have taken my time with a bottle.
To finish off our meal, which left us sated but not uncomfortably full, we had some punchy hazelnut gelato, made that morning and whipped to the texture of a cloud. And we tasted the Amalfi lemon soufflé, another airy confection, but this time we poured hot and spicy molten chocolate into its middle. It hit the register on all counts: tart, bitter, sweet and chilli. A perfect end to the meal.Likes: Unpretentious refinement and food to remember. A modestly sized wine list from small producers across the country (the cellar, in fact, is organized regionally, so you can trace a circuit from north to south Italy) offers wine not just by the glass but for very reasonable prices by the carafe as well.Dislikes: There’s not much to cavil about.. This is food that deserves to be enjoyed more widely. Shoreditch, are you still listening?Verdict: Chef Lello’s take on Sardinian and Puglian fare has all the warmth and flavour of southern home cooking, but with a finesse that comes from true artistry. Highly recommended.