Six years ago this summer, an unassuming ice cream parlour – or so it looked to the passer-by – opened on the scruffy lower reaches of Kentish Town Road.
But locals soon realised that the ambitions of humble Calabrian-born founder, Mustapha Mouflih, and his partner-in-crime Alessandro Altoni, were not to be underestimated.
The aim, he said at the time, was for it to “feel like home. We wanted the chef to come to your table himself, tell you what we found at the market today, then go to the kitchen and cook each dish.”
And it’s been thrilling punters ever since, its basic café interior belying sensational regional Italian cooking. Not a surprise when you learn that Mouflih and his cheffy gang had prior experience at Mayfair establishments like Four Seasons Park Lane, Le Gavroche, Ilia and Cecconi. They just got tired, he also said in 2014, of serving “a clique of billionaires”.
Like most publications, we’ve raved about the cooking too over the years, making it the #1 opening of 2014, and subsequently revisiting to swoon about, say, the tuna tartare, the scallops or the strangolapreti.And now for the good news: last week the diminutive cafe reopened as a space several times its former size, a cavernous warren of connected dining rooms.
The former main entrance is now mostly counter and an expanded, open kitchen – chefs visible – with the original, once rather narrow dining room now a lighter cafe for the ice cream parlour.
“Which is right here,” says an excitable and reinvigorated Mustapha, as we walk into the brand new adjoining unit, a former estate agent’s. He is now back at the helm after working on consultancies abroad for the last year.
In the new cafe, he points out an understated chocolate fountain, as well as their typically tempting selection of in-house made ice creams and granita.
The main difference, however, lies at the rear of the venue. An airy, simply furnished contemporary dining room – which currently only seats just thirty, due to social distancing – is solely used for evening service.
We visited mid-morning when the tables were unlaid, but, candlelit and prepared for service, it promises atmosphere by night. The room overlooks a courtyard garden beyond, with the same number of seats again for balmy evenings.
Just as with nearby Let It Roll, it’s a reminder of the amazing outdoor spaces many Kentish Town Road units have.
Hairdresser and all-round NW5 cultural pioneer Michael Ptootch has been consulting on the interior and logo, and has curated the wall gallery, featuring the work of only local artists.
As for the new menu? A sneak peek reveals old faves are still there, like vitello tonnato and scallop gratin, as well as some mouthwatering new dishes such as octopus and polenta, duck breast with pistachio and short rib.
“It’s gone a bit higher level,” says Mustapha, “the same but better. There are more starters, more primi platti, more secondi – not just pasta,” he says. Carb-lovers can relax, too: that umami-rich venison ragu with pappardelle is still there.
And happily – inexplicably? – it remains BYO, with no corkage fee, although there is now a service charge added to the bill.
From next week it’s open seven days a week and you can swing by at lunch, too: we did just that yesterday to try a simple piadina of tuna, tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise (£6.80), packed with punchy flavours.
Now, the bad news: despite the increased size, it’s already booked up for at least the next week (when we hope to secure a table). So get on that phone now if you want to bag an evening slot before summer’s out.
Anima e Cuore is open daily, from Monday 10th August, at 129 Kentish Town Rd NW1. They are not participating in Eat Out To Help Out. To book call 07428 088832 or email email@example.com. There is a shiny new website you can check out here