London during COVID: Italian chefs start

Francesco Mazzei and Danilo Cortellini have been involved in charitable and solidarity initiatives in the British capital

by Federica Carr
A detail of the portions of Gnocchi alla sorrentin

A detail of the portions of Gnocchi alla sorrentina prepared in these days by Francesco Mazzei

"How's it going in London?" - twe get this question every day from our folks in Italy since the beginning of the pandemic, probably to understand the differences between the more restrictive Italian lockdown and the rather vague measures imposed on us by the Johnson government. 

One of the differences with Italy - at least with most of the regions - is that here a few restaurants have managed to carry on trading (somehow)  despite the restrictions, often finding a way to keep busy and in many cases doing some good at the same time. In fact, many chefs have made their kitchens, supplies and staff available (with due precautions, of course) to cook meals for those who need them or for medical personnel and other key workers. 

Amongst them, two compatriots: Francesco Mazzei and Danilo Cortellini. Well known names - celebrity chefs, such odd terms - excellent representatives of our cuisine in the United Kingdom. We have known them for a long time and we know that being involved in charitable initiatives is far from attention seeking, quite the contrary. 

Francesco Mazzei

Francesco Mazzei

Having temporarily closed his 3 restaurants in the capital, Francesco Mazzei just couldn't cope with twiddling his thumbs; from his beautiful home kitchen he started sharing mouthwatering tutorials on social media (the donuts he made for his children looked delicious) and live 'cook along' (follow him to discover the secrets of fresh pasta). But that was not enough: he reopened the kitchen of his Radici restaurant to prepare Italian dishes for the medical staff on the front line, who can thus at least take a well-deserved break and enjoy a proper hot meal. 

All this was made possible through a partnership with a local charity - Heroes - founded by NHS (National Health Service) staff in support of their colleagues; the institution identified food delivery through existing infrastructure such as restaurants, commercial kitchens and catering businesses as key areas of concern during the pandemic.

Mazzei's dishes go to the the Mile End Hospital’s canteen which is used by the staff of Barts Health group. To date, Francesco and his staff have prepared, packaged and delivered over 800 meals: on the menu, among other things, baked gnocchi and chicken stew with mushrooms. 

Radici's cuisine at work in these particular days

Radici's cuisine at work in these particular days

On the other side of the city, in a surreal and empty Mayfair - Danilo Cortellini, head chef of our Embassy in London - while continuing to cook for the Ambassador - has decided to offer his help to a charity which he has supported for years, Foodcycle.

FoodCycle is a non profit that fights the isolation of the most vulnerable people through the creation of weekly meals with discarded ingredients; the benefits are twofold, because while finding a real ethical solution to food waste, the group is also feeding those who are in need.

Danilo Cortellini

Danilo Cortellini

FoodCycle operates across the UK and the growing demand that their services have had in recent years is clear proof of how effective their efforts are. In addition to the main team that works full time for the association, FoodCycle has an army of about 5000 volunteers; in addition, the vast majority of the 'projects' or the locations used to prepare and serve meals are made available free of charge. 

At the outbreak of the pandemic, all Foodcycle projects were closed and charity found itself without kitchens. In a short time they managed to arrange a delivery service with groceries and essential items so that some projects managed to reopen.

Those who find themselves in difficulty - the elderly, those at high risk of contagion, the less well-off - can therefore register for the service on the FoodCycle website.

But there was a need to do more. Danilo therefore did not hesitate to make his skills and his brigade available once again to remediate the lack of ready meals. With the support of Ambassador Trombetta, he uses the kitchen in the embassy building to cook "Italian take-aways", also thanks to the donations of produce that his long-standing suppliers are making to further help the initiative.

For the moment, these Italian meals are distributed by volunteers from Marylebone and Hackney, two of the city's projects. "The numbers are still relatively low" - Danilo explains - "a few hundreds a week but somewhere you have to start". 

These numbers do not seem at all reductive, on the contrary; among the dishes prepared are baked pasta with bechamel and Grana Padano and polenta with truffle. This initiative has also allowed Danilo and his team to rediscover the buzz of pre-pandemic times: "finally after a month and a half of inactivity we have found our energy again!".

And it's not just the great chefs who offer their skills to do good, but many other Italians. Among others, it is worth mentioning the Neapolitan pizzeria  Theo's in Camberwell. While they open only to serve a small number of take away pizzas every night to the delight of those who live in the area, through the website they are raising money to cook pizzas and panuozzi to be delivered to NHS staff at King's College hospital in central London.