Tearing around Soho in 2012, well fed from sharing plates in dusky, no bookings eateries and extremely well watered on prosecco…it’s sometimes easy to forget where it all began. Very few things are truly original, and personally I get more New York than Venetian inspiration, but we all owe a lot to Polpo.
Polpo only opened in 2009, but has trailblazed a path to infamy in a short time. Hot, broody and at times frustrating, it's a natural home for the many aesthetes and louche of this town. I'd never heard of a Venetian bacaro and have no idea what it should be; I found Venice a bit of a theme park but I assume there must be more to it.
The food at Polpo is very easy – while officially eschewing the pizza/pasta Italian schtick, there are several smaller pasta dishes and plenty of pizzette which strategically cover these requisites off for the uninitiated.
On this visit, we had so much that I’m not sure I can capture it, or remember. It’s loud (80s rock and some cheesy power ballads provide a fun, targeted soundtrack) and very boozy. But here goes...
Meatballs are a favourite here, and indeed its offspring Da Polpo specialises in them. The pork and fennel ones have to be the winners, rich in flavour and in a thick sauce. You can order them with spaghettini and get your pasta fix that way. I prefer them solo, devoured messily and whole.
Fritto misto was spot on – hot, salty and yes, I concede, typically Venetian.
The pizzette are another speciality. Prominent, intact egg yolks seem to be a favourite across the Russell Norman stable and the spinach, parmesan and egg pizzette is quite the dish. Attractive, indulgent and begging to be burst.
There are a few more pizzette, possibly too many, considering there were also two on the specials when I visited. The bresaola one I tried was ok – generously topped with slices of cured beef, rocket and parmesan shavings. It was a little overcooked though - as the cheese beneath had dried in, there was no connection or adhesion between the toppings and the base.
Lamb and cannellini stew with wild garlic leaves (nice seasonal touch) was good – tender lamb and plenty of it, but a tad watery and a bit repetitive. The Piglet called it gruel, but I think it was better than that. We had heaps more, but we were too busy putting the world to rights to have pictured it Or even to remember it, frankly.
So while the food isn’t perfect in every execution, it’s undoubtedly very good. The menu is expansive and there is plenty to help line your stomach against the copious negronis and prosecco you’ll definitely consume. The staff waver on that delicate balance between acceptably cool aloofness and just chatting to their mates – some better than others. The guy singlehanded running the downstairs bar deserves a mention – tough job.
And while it has progeny of its own, and many others owe it dues, it still has a unique buzz to. Norman certainly seems to be an expert at creating the right buzz. He’s our own McNally (ignoring McNally being a Brit) although the good lighting and Italian buzz replace the grandiose sense of occasion. No you can’t book, but yes, you can stay all night getting sloshed, and keep your table in peace.
Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10 (food fine, about £6-8 a dish, drinks can tot up though)
Tap water tales – 8/10 (carafes brought and topped up, room temperature though)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (inked, skinny, youthful - bit into themselves)