Polpo. A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)

Cover of Polpo Cookery book

The new cookbook from London’s man-of-the-moment Russell Norman lifts the lid on the recipes behind his recession busting restaurant Polpo. Jenny White put the book through its paces.

According to Russell Norman, you should only visit St Mark’s square three times: once to marvel at the architecture, once to soak up its night-time beauty and once to notice the heaving crowds and tourist tat. After that, you should never return, seeking instead the real Venice that lies just beyond the tourist thoroughfares. He recommends leaving St Mark’s square by the Museo corner and weaving your way to the Campo Santa Margherita, where you will find ‘genuine Venetians: teachers from the nearby university, artists, students, poets, politicians, bohemians and musicians’. This is the Venice Norman fell in love with, but you’ll have to venture deeper still to find the back street bars, or bacari, that inspired his hugely successful Soho restaurant Polpo.

In his book of the same name, Norman recalls becoming intrigued by the sight of locals sitting in bacari, usually with a luminous orange drink (Spritz) in one hand and a small snack in the other. As soon as he plucked up the courage to enter one, buy a drink and sample the food, he was hooked. His subsequent trips to Venice became ‘all about bacari,’ and he started collecting recipes for the titbits, known as cicheti, which are typically served in the bars.

Initially, he had no thought of opening his own restaurant. The eureka moment came in April 2008, when he was eating a warm octopus salad at the bar of Alla Vendova in Cannaregio and it struck him that ‘polpo’ – the Italian word for octopus – would be a good name for a restaurant. After that, the idea took shape quickly: he would create a version of a bacaro in London, serving cicheti in a ‘relaxed and slightly jaded urban setting.’ Undaunted by the fact that they were about to open a restaurant in the depths of a global recession, Norman and his business partner Richard Beatty took the plunge – and came up smelling of roses. Hot on the heels of Polpo’s success came more restaurants – Polpetto in Dean Street, da Polpo on the edge of Covent Garden, Mishkin’s, a Jewish-style deli, and Spuntino, Norman’s take on a New York diner. He has struck gold, but his book Polpo is a reminder that all this speedy success is grounded in obsessive amounts of research and a greedy passion for food.

Polpo’s food is simple – Norman writes that he and chef Tom Oldroyd only put a dish on the menu once they have taken out as many ingredients as possible. In his restaurant, the result is authenticity and a beguiling lack of pretence; in the cookbook, you get a lack of fuss that is perfectly suited to home cooking.

A good example is the garlic and chilli prawns, which are pan-fried in olive oil with garlic and fresh chilli, with a knob of butter stirred in at the end. I followed Norman’s instructions and bought large prawns, and because of their size I de-veined them, although he doesn’t say to do this. He does suggest leaving the head and tail on for presentation, and this is something I would do again, as they look great, retaining their alien beauty while being easy to eat. Norman’s cooking times (just 1-2 minutes on the heat) are spot on, and the result was beautifully tender prawns, but with a disappointingly faint hint of chilli and garlic. Next time I will probably double the amount.

The odd quibble aside, Norman’s book is enchanting – it’s as if he has gathered up Venice’s magic and woven it through the pages. The photographs by Jenny Zarins are part of the spell; her shots of food and of Venice feel natural, impulsive and intimate. Norman’s introductions to each chapter perform a similar trick, giving an up close and personal view of the food habits of the real Venice, away from all those dreadful tourist restaurants and souvenir stalls.

When you cook recipes from Polpo, the Venetian magic seeps into your imagination and makes simple, often classic recipes seem greater than the sum of their parts. Biting into an addictively bitter rocket and walnut pesto crostini I pictured blue-green waters, shady alleyways and bustling markets. With a glass of wine, this particular cicheto proved a perfect way to start a meal but it also makes a good snack, and the pesto worked beautifully as a sauce for linguine the following day.

A meaty main course of sliced, medium rare flank steak with garlic, parsley, glossy portobello mushrooms and more rocket leaves was simple and satisfying. I served it with my own thyme-roasted new potatoes, but it could easily make a carb-free meal by itself because Norman’s portions are so generous.

One thing I can already say about this recipe book (and this is rare) is that all of the recipes I have tried so far look set to become family staples because they are so easy and rewarding. I am yet to try the desserts, which include classic tiramisu, chocolate salami (which as far as I can tell is raw cookie dough rolled with dried fruit, nuts and pieces of sponge fingers) and a delectable-looking flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake flavoured with Frangelico liqueur. Also beckoning are several pages of drinks, including Spritz (made with white wine, Aperol and soda water), proper Bellini and Polpo’s popular elderflower lemonade. I’m glad that this book – like Venice – holds so much more to discover. And I’m delighted that it includes a guide to Norman’s twelve favourite bars and restaurants in Venice. It will be coming with me on my next trip.

Polpo: a Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman is published by Bloomsbury, priced £25.