Whenever Jackie and I are planning a trip to London (which is as often as possible), we check to see what’s playing at the Almeida Theatre in the Islington district just north-east of the city center. The show frequently appeals to us, either because of the play itself or because of the cast and director, so we generally find ourselves up there a couple of times a year.
For after-theater supper, we used to despair of the somewhat awkward French restaurant right across the street: The Almeida. Then a couple of years ago the owners – the D&D London restaurant group – revamped the dining room and engaged a new chef, Tommy Boland; the food and service blossomed, and with it our fondness for the place, as I wrote for HuffPost at the time.
Mr. Boland later moved on, and in April 2017, after a major renovation, everything changed again. The Calabrian-born chef Francesco Mazzei has taken charge of the kitchen at what is now called Radici (Roots). We were much taken with the cooking at his former restaurant l’Anima, though its stark décor and noisy acoustic were a deterrent for us. In 2015 he set up shop at Sartoria (on Savile Row and under the same D&D umbrella) and continues there to produce stylish Italian food that’s at once refined and gutsy in luxuriously comfy surroundings.
Radici, on the other hand, is more informal than luxurious, though the large space is comfy enough for me with its bare tables and its calculatedly mismatched chairs. It isn’t a hushed restaurant, but the noise is mostly that of people having a good time. The staff is able, quick-witted, well informed about food and drink – and exuberantly friendly: the woman at the front door greeted us like old pals, not in a hokey way but in a manner that made us feel welcome and comfortable.
The food is exuberant and friendly too, if this can be said of something to eat. There are certainly plenty of southern Italian flavors, and these tend to make people happy. To call it home-style cooking would not do justice to Mr. Mazzei’s professionalism, but some dishes have something of the Italian grandmother about them. There are, for instance, spicy meatballs – listed as an antipasto, and served in a portion easily large enough to share or to eat as a main dish with a side order of, say, potato gattò (from the French gâteau): a Calabrian/Neapolitan potato cake enriched with cheese. And there’s spicy chicken Calabrese, which in Little Italys across the United States would probably, and wrongly, be called chicken cacciatore.
There are pizzas, made with excellent ingredients and beautifully baked in a wood-fired oven (other dishes are cooked in it too). We had a plain Margherita, which had all the virtues of Neapolitan pizza, simultaneously soft and chewy, with a puffed rim leopard-mottled from the heat of the oven and a center that grew soft and juicy as it took in the oil and sauce (good sauce – not just the plain tomatoes that purists might insist on, which is fine by me). The other pizzas are more creative but not pushed over the top by excess. Next time we’re in the restaurant, I’ll have my eye on the Siciliana, which suggests the flavors of pasta alla Norma: eggplant/aubergine and salted ricotta, in this instance smoked. Or maybe the ’nduja-and-chili Calabrese, because we know from Mr. Mazzei’s other restaurants that he has a way with ’nduja. (There’s no reason you couldn’t come to Radici and order just pizza and a beer.)
If you haven’t guessed already, main courses tend toward the hearty: calf’s liver rolls stuffed with pancetta, garlic and sage; that spicy chicken; smothered salt cod and potatoes. There is a lighter side too: we ate perfectly grilled prawns/shrimp with a gentle herbed oil-and-vinegar dressing and a little salad of pea shoots. As a side dish, we tried, but failed, to finish a giant haystack of fried shoestrings of zucchini/courgettes – which stayed crisp throughout the meal, so canny was the coating and frying.
Of course there is pasta, including ricotta-filled cannelloni and a lasagna variant using beef ragù, as well as vegetable and seafood options. We didn’t eat any the night we were there, however, because that would have left no room for pizza, much less dessert. What we did eat was something I wouldn’t have ordered if a friend hadn’t told us not to miss it: a pre-antipasto snack of peas in their pods, lightly oiled, grilled and salted, with a spritz of lemon added at the table. These were fantastic and fun to eat: You slip the pod into your mouth, then pull it out, using your teeth and lips to ease the sweet peas out and simultaneously scrape and suck off some of the char, oil and salt on the surface of the pod.
Islington is full of places to eat and drink that are open late, most of them hectic and unreliable. But there are now several good options for post-Almeida-Theatre supper (or lunch or dinner without theater) in a real restaurant, including Bellanger, the deservedly popular Parisian-Alsatian brasserie a few minutes’ walk down the main street (as opposed to the 20-second walk to Radici). I suppose we’ll alternate between the two, or flip a coin before booking our table.