Book Review: Polpo A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)

Polpo and its smaller siblings make up one of our favourite London’s restaurants chains, the pioneering restauranteur Russell Norman behind the eateries has now published his first cookery book. The restaurants are famous for their non-fuss, simple and delicious Venetian food. Born in the UK, Norman has long loved Venice – he visited it as a student and spent his honeymoon there as well. He quickly noticed that outside of the tourist haunts, Venetian locals frequented busy wine bars – “Bacaro” – with small dishes of different local food. After a career in different London restaurants – including a brief stint as a teacher – Norman wanted to re-create the bacaro in London, and thus Polpo was born. Originally he wanted the restaurant to be an exact replica with sawdust on the floor and no tables for patrons, however he was persuaded to make it slightly more comfortable for the London crowd. Norman has decorated all the restaurants himself, and sourced all the vintage furniture from antiques markets and ebay.

Similar to the tables and chairs in the restaurant, all the recipes in the book are personally selected by Norman. They are spare and simple, similar to the ethos behind the restaurant and its ideo­logy. Throughout the book you can hear Norman’s former life as an English teacher, “We have a rule that a dish is ready to be put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredi­ents as pos­sible. As Ant­oine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘Per­fec­tion is achieved not when there is noth­ing to add, but when there is noth­ing left to take away.’

He covers Italian favourites such as crostini, panzanella, Piedmontese peppers and tiramisu, and there are a few variants on classic dishes, such as a pigeon saltimbocca with wet polenta or lamb and pistachio polpette – meatballs. The photography is really special as well, everything looks delectable served up on simple plates and with recommended wines. As a Venice devotee Norman has also included a selection on his favourite Venetian haunts, there are tips on where to eat and what to eat in Venice as well as photos of cafés, bars and street markets well away from the usual well trodden spots. He’s also popped in a drinks section at the end, featuring the recipe for Negroni – Venice’s second most famous cocktail after the Bellini.

A delicious book, with some brilliant ideas for easy suppers and great Italian food.

Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts)
By Russell Norman
Bloomsbury Publishing, £25