It was my friend Lucia who suggested meeting at Anima e Cuore to eat one evening and she kindly offered to book, which apparently turned out to be quite a challenge. It’s only open from 6.00-10.00pm Tuesday to Saturday and it’s during these hours, or just before, that you might find someone answers the phone. The next challenge is actually getting a table. Anima e Cuore has been causing an excited gastronomic storm since it opened in 2014 and is always fully booked. Yet from its appearance outside in an insalubrious part of Kentish Town in north London, if you hadn’t heard what was going on inside in the kitchen, you’d very likely walk straight past it. Quickly!
Co-proprietors and chefs Mustapha Mouflih (born in Calabria) and Alessandro Altoni have impressive backgrounds and have worked in restaurants like The Ledbury, L’Anima, Le Gavroche and the Four Seasons Park Lane. But even knowing this, given the location of Anima e Cuore and the ordinariness of its tiny interior, which is more like an old-school English ‘caff’ than a restaurant, the food itself is still a glorious surprise.
The Italian name gives you a clue to the passion behind the restaurant: anima (soul) e (and) cuore (heart). If ever your surroundings didn’t count in a restaurant, this is the place. Anima e Cuore is all about the food; it’s about pasta made freshly to order; it’s about fresh seasonal ingredients; it’s about top quality ingredients; and it’s about astonishingly creative cooking.
There is no written menu as it changes regularly. It’s written out on a board and our waiter talked us through every single dish. This might seem excessive (given its length) yet the food is so complex and exciting, it was great to have a real feel for what was on offer.
There were so many dishes I wanted to try, which is a pleasing thing in a restaurant. Who hasn’t been to a new place that sounds great but then found hardly anything on the menu appeals? Not so at Anima e Cuore: we all thought we’d happily eat most of the menu! I went with what had instantly stood out to me and started with ‘Baccalà 4 ways’: baccalà (salt cod) prepared as a pannacotta, as ceviche within a fried polenta case, mantecato (creamed) and in black polenta.
As the dishes came out of the minuscule kitchen, which we could just see into from our table, and were put before us, we were pretty much in awe. Food looking this amazing seemed out of place in our surroundings. But who cared? We were there to eat and the food tasted as amazing as it looked. The little baccalà pannacotta lay on a crisp of black polenta – the inventiveness hadn’t stopped at the 4 baccalà interpretations, though each was a little miracle of taste in itself. We had all five of us chosen different starters. Lucia had chosen a ‘rosemary baba with Gorgonzola, walnuts and pear’.
Lucia’s husband David chose the classic Piemontese dish, Vitello Tonnato – thin slices of veal with a tuna sauce – as his starter.
Maria had ‘beef tartare, quail’s egg and Parmesan.
And Caroline had octopus with bottarga croquettes and a liquorice foam.
The main course selections were mainly pasta dishes on which they pride themselves. In a sense they were more ordinary after the amazing starters, but then excellent handmade, fresh pasta with a good sauce can’t really be classed as ‘ordinary’. My ‘fettuccine with a duck ragù’ was delicious.
David had a similar dish with pappardelle and a lamb ragù while Lucia went for the vegetarian option of ‘ravioli stuffed with asiago and ricotta cheeses and an aubergine sauce’.
Maria chose to follow her beef tartare starter with a simple and classic ‘spaghetti cacio e Pepe’ – spaghetti served with a simple cheese and pepper sauce – which she said was very good. Caroline chose the appealing sounding ‘ravioli osso buco’, which looked great and apparently tasted good but it turned out to be one of the few hiccups in the meal as it came lukewarm. She chose not to send it back, though mentioned it at the end.
Wine is BYO and carafes of water are brought to the table. We decided against desserts but a complimentary one came to share with our bill – a gorgeous warm sponge cake with fabulous ice cream on top. When they first opened it was as a café and gelateria in the daytime (though no longer) and they make their own ice cream, which is excellent with a wonderfully smooth, creamy texture.
It was a fabulous meal and almost perfect. But then things are rarely absolutely perfect. There was the hitch of Caroline’s lukewarm main and the mains came quite slowly. Our waiter apologised while we were waiting and said it was because lots of people had come in at the same time and everything is freshly prepared in the tiny kitchen, but maybe they need to spread bookings out a bit. But with food of this quality and price (the bill was £120 for the 5 of us – and we took our own wine), and with friendly service from a waiter who was clearly passionate about their food, things can be forgiven. And we certainly all felt we wanted to go back. There were so many other dishes we wanted to try! It was also, despite my initial misgivings about location, easy to get to – only a 6-minute walk from Camden Road station from which an Overground train took me directly to Richmond in 41 minutes.