The Polpo story starts six years ago (to the day almost).
When Russell Norman left his job at Caprice Holdings, he knew he wanted to open somewhere with a downtown Manhattan vibe. The lights would always be a little too low, the music a little too loud. But the food? That was less set in stone.
Where Russell ended up was Venice, taking inspiration from one of his favourite cities and the tiny Trattorias & Bacaros that serve cicheti by the plateful night after night. We spent some together time this week talkingÂ about sourcing, producersÂ &Â how theÂ Polpo team sources their ingredients; and he said that his time spent in Italy back then was eye opening.
The owners of the likes of All’ Arco looked suspiciously at him while he was there, asking how to recreate the flavours of their dishes back in London. But eventually, they revealed that shortcuts were a necessity. For such small places with little or no kitchen space, jars of artichoke and the like were the best way to save time, cost and still get the best flavours. So in fact, doing the same at Polpo in London was more authentically Venetian than if they imported purely fresh ingredients or made everything from scratch.
When he then spent time at Alla Vedova; one of the most famous and oldest osterie in Venice – known for its tradition and authenticity – Russell was obsessed by one particular cicheti. A crostini (of cheap French bread, not even toasted but simply left out for the day to harden), served with sliced cold butter and brown anchovies. Simple, yet delicious. When he spoke to the owner to learn its secrets, she noted wryly that the anchovies were in fact from Spain.
This speaks to one of Polpoâ€™s overriding principles; which is about being faithful to the roots and the DNA of restaurant, but not so strictly that itâ€™s limiting to the end result â€“ be it quality, taste or experience. Russellâ€™s lesson from Alla Vedova? If you find an ingredient that’s grown better elsewhere, thereâ€™s no shame in using it.
He spoke about how this plays out day-to-day, with Italian suppliers approaching the Polpo team in London – promising authenticity and better taste. However, many turn out to be more expensive and not as good as local, British produce. Being based in a â€˜country of originâ€™ is not an automatic assurance of quality. â€œ
We put carbon footprint, price and quality above purchasing something with a â€˜Made in Italyâ€™ label.”
Russell and his team spend a lot of time taking feedback into consideration. When people asked for a cheeseboard, they introduced it to the menu. But instead of choosing more obvious Italian cheese like a Gorgonzola,Â Pecorino Romano or a Taleggio, they chose to partner with Nealâ€™s Yard Dairy; one of the finest producers in the country, based just round the corner from their HQ.
This allowed the Polpo team to cut down on shipping, support a local producer, and provide changing â€˜of the dayâ€™ selections rather than a smaller, fixed list. â€œWe prepared for a backlash, with a statement about our investment in the best â€“ but nobody said a wordâ€
Russell did share with me another example of where someone had noticed that Polpo serves British ice cream and not Italian Gelato, and his response demonstrates that a commitment to provenance is not just about blindly buying from a specific country.
â€œOur ice cream is from Marine Ices, one of the most famous family-run Italian ice cream makers in the world. Charlie Chaplin would drive directly to their shop in Chalk Farm from Heathrow Airport when he flew over from Hollywood. They pride themselves on creating “Italian gelato” according to authentic ingredients, methods and recipes â€“ and weâ€™re proud that we serve such world-renowned high quality home-grown gelato.â€
This is a perfect example of why flexibility is key; Polpo is a restaurant who uses locality as a USP – but strict locality doesnâ€™t always make sense; itâ€™s often limiting, and a little offputting. Traditional foods aren’t always the crowd pleasers.
When planning the original Polpo menu, Russell was aware that there needed to be a few of these crowd pleasersÂ on the menu â€“ but they still needed to retain that sense of locality. He asked his friends who were Venetian what they ate when they werenâ€™t looking for something more traditional. They all spoke about the pizzetta from Trattoria dai Tosi; and the Polpo interpretation ofÂ that is what made it on the menu.
â€œTo push the boundaries of what we served, but be true to what Polpo is, I had to work out how they push the boundariesâ€
Now, Polpoâ€™s chefs bring influences from all around the world to the menu, which Russell and Executive Chef JasonÂ Wass taste and test on the daily specials menu.
There are, of course, some things that Russell would only buy from Italy; mozzarella (heâ€™s not a fan of the British version), parmesan (though he references a British producer who makes a vegetarian version they keep on hand), hams and speck, prosciutto, fennel salami. And his take on olive oil? For cooking, itâ€™s less important, but for the table itâ€™s always Planeta. Made from olives grown at Capparrina in the Menfi district onÂ Sicily, it has a thick green colour and is wonderfully peppery but not overpowering
What about produce heâ€™d only buy from the UK? â€œAll of our fruit and vegetables are from Kent. When the season comes around for English asparagus, all of us practically jump for joy. From that point onwards; Jason looks at the daily emails from Rushtons Greengrocer and we work out what we can work with thatâ€™s in seasonâ€
His highlights from the year? â€œReally good tomatoes. We get ours fromÂ a tomato nursery in Barnham in Kent. When they’re not good, we will often use imported San Marzano toms from Italy.Â Strawberries are another joy. And just two weeks ago; cob nuts started to appear. We serve a fennel,Â almondÂ and curly endive salad â€“ and when we remembered weâ€™d seen cobnuts on the Rushtons email â€“ we tried it, and ended up making a classic dish thatâ€™s been on our menu from the beginning even better with something fresh & seasonalâ€
There are now nine restaurants in the Polpo group across London; check them out here. I strongly advise you to get involved (and seek out the Black Cherry frozen yoghurt gelato)