Spitting out the letter almost as if it were a fish bone, Russell Norman, between mouthfuls of salt cod and polenta, says he "tries not to the use the 'T' word". He means "tapas" and that, he says, is definitely not what Polpo, his new restaurant in London, is about. "Attaching a Spanish word to Italian food makes for an ugly hybrid," he adds. But attach it they have – queues snake in from Beak Street every night because people hear this modest Soho establishment, which opened in September to great reviews, adds an exciting new dish to London's giant global buffet. It's being called "Venetian tapas". But Norman prefers "Italian small plates".
The salt cod, or baccalà, has been soaked and then simmered slowly in milk to the point that it almost disappears in the mouth. It's piled with a black olive on a small disc of grilled polenta and speared with a toothpick. The rustic appetiser, designed to be eaten with the hands, is an example of a cuisine as typical to Venice as gondolas and bridges. Not that most of the visitors who flock to the "Queen of the Adriatic" would know it. Much of the city's rich food heritage is sinking with its piazzas and passageways under the weight of tourist-trap trattorias knocking out mediocre food.
But pearls remain for those who know where to dive. And many of these exist nowhere else. "There's a pecking order in Italy," Norman explains. "You start with the ristorante – all white linen and leather-bound wine lists – then you get the trattoria, which is more like a French brasserie. At the bottom you get the osteria – basically a pub with food." But away from the channels down which Venetians shrewdly channel the tourists, Venice boasts a peculiar lower stratum in the order eating. "Down alleys you find the bacari," Norman says. "Tiny rooms with a simple bar with five or six bottles of local wine offer a few cicheti knocked up that morning by mama."
Anna Del Conte, the first lady of Italian food writing and author of Risotto with Nettles: A Memoir with Food, was born in pre-war Milan to a Venetian mother and kept a flat in Venice with her late English husband in the 1980s. "The bacari were something the Venetians kept under their belt until recently," she says. "There were no carriages and now, no cars, which has helped Venice become one of the most democratic Italian cities. You have to walk and the bacaro is the place everybody – from the duke down to the ironmonger – drops into before lunch for some cicheti and an ombra [glass of wine]. They stand up at the bar and traditionally talk in Venetian, addressing each other by name rather than 'signor' or 'signora'."
It was the spirit of the bacaro – informal, local, democratic – that Norman has dreamed of importing to Britain for years. He fell in love with Venetian cuisine during dozens of visits to the city between gigs managing some of London's glitziest eateries, including the Club at the Ivy and J Sheekey. Sensing the time was right, Norman teamed up with young chef Tom Oldroyd, schooled in rustic Italian cooking at nearby Bocca di Lupo, to open the capital's first bacaro.
Downstairs in the tiny kitchen before lunch, it's not yet 11 o'clock and Oldroyd and his team are already beginning to cook; it's hot – really hot. "When we opened, one of the walls melted," Oldroyd says, pointing at a hastily installed sheet of stainless steel. Tomato sauce simmers in a giant pot but it's the belly of pork sitting on the counter that Oldroyd is poised to attack. Polpo's "pork belly, radicchio, hazelnuts" has become one of the restaurant's biggest sellers. The meat is roasted slowly over ribs, celery and onions, sliced and tossed with red radicchio leaves wilted in the hot fat from the cooking. It's one dish you won't find in Venice. "We've replicated a lot but food like this is inspired by northern Italian cuisine. For example, I'd read that in Venice they serve radicchio wilted in pork fat as a side dish. So I thought it would be a good idea to incorporate the meat."
The pork belly is served, starter size, on a small plate and costs £5.70. You might order one or two other little dishes – we had bigoli (read on to find out what that is) with anchovies and a fennel dish with beans and cobnuts – as well as a selection of cicheti and crostini. It's with these small plates that Norman has translated the bacaro into the London vernacular. "The original plan was to open a very casual place where people could come in for a few cicheti and drink – but you can only go so far to encourage people to experience a different way of dining and what Londoners want is to sit down and eat."
Norman looked to New York – the progenitor of all the best restaurant trends – for inspiration for the less-authentic face of Polpo (the Italian word for octopus, by the way – served here in a salad). The restaurant's tin ceiling and the naked carbon filament bulbs hanging over the zinc bar are straight out of the Meatpacking District, and it was New York's Italian chefs who pioneered "small plate" dining. The exposed brickwork is another nod across the Atlantic but that's genuine – part of the building that, by a stroke of serendipity to trump any PR ploy, turned out to have been the London home of the 18th-century Venetian painter Canaletto.
But people queue at Polpo – Norman ditched evening bookings after two weeks to encourage locals to drop in as they might in Venice – for the food, not the brickwork. As the picture windows by the bar are lashed by rain so torrential one half expects a vaporetto to chug down Beak Street, Norman orders a few more dishes from the brown paper menu that doubles as a placemat. The polenta and salt cod arrives on a slab of wood alongside three crostini loaded with prosciutto and mozzarella, marinated sprats and onions and chopped chicken liver.
Bigoli with anchovies is one of the small plates and Polpo's only pasta dish. Made with just parsley, white wine and tinned anchovies, it's also typical of the bold flavours created by the cheapest ingredients that dominate the rustic cooking here. Bigoli, another Venetian speciality, is like spaghetti, but as Oldroyd demonstrates in the kitchen, the addition of two parts buckwheat flour to one part traditional durum wheat flour gives it a coarse, wholemeal quality and a darker colour. Oldroyd takes a rested lump of dough to the dining room, where one of the tables has a torchio, or pasta press, clamped to it. Comprising a thick barrel and a screw with a long handle, it extrudes cords of pasta, which wind and fold into a bowl. "We ran out of dough during the service the other day so I had to come up here in my whites and do this in front of everyone," Oldroyd says.
There are milder flavours on the menu – slow roast duck, polpette (meatballs) – but the popularity of potent dishes like bigoli suggests Londoners might be willing to shed the pasta-and-pizza comfort blanket that constitutes Italian food for many of us. Almost as in-demand is the cuttlefish, a dish Norman describes as "quite icky, odd – like an elongated squid with tentacles covered in its own black ink. It looks like a big spade-full of mud lifted from the bottom of the Venetian Lagoon and thrown on to a plate, but the flavour is unquestionably of the sea. It's a wonderful dish." Just don't call it tapas.
BACARO BITES: HOW TO DO IT AT HOME
Pork belly with radicchio and hazelnut
1 kilo of pork belly
1 head radicchio
1tblsp red wine vinegar
Slow roast pork belly
Tear the leaves of radicchio salad.
Collect all juices from Pork Belly (all the pork fat).
Use the pork fat and juices to dress the radicchio salad with toasted (chopped) hazelnuts.
Mix the sliced pork belly in with the radicchio salad.
Splash red wine vinegar, plus a little salt and pepper.
Scrunch the salad with your hands so the dressing mixes through and the radicchio warms slightly.
Bigoli with anchovies
For the pasta:
200g of Buckwheat Flour
100g of 00 flour
1 yolk (extra)
Add a little water to your hands. Knead together until well combined, for about 5 mintues. Wrap in a tea towel and let it rest for half an hour.
Push through the bigoli machine to make the fresh pasta. If you don't have a bigoli machine, use whole wheat pasta or spaghetti.
For the sauce:
Half large onion
50g of tinned anchovies (in olive oil), chopped
Handful of chopped parsley
100ml white wine
Chop the onions finely, as fine as possible. Cook the onions in a little olive oil, on low heat for approx 15 minutes until almost falling apart.
Add the chopped anchovies to the onions and crush with the back of a fork. Add the white wine and cook for 5 minutes. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce for 2 minutes. Finally add the chopped parsley, mix in and serve.
Fennel, french bean and cobnut salad
250g French beans
Large handful of cobnuts (pine nuts are a good substitute)
Slice the fennel as finely as possible. Blanch the French beans and let cool. Mix the fennel and beans with salt, pepper, olive oil, lemon juice. Add the cobnuts, serve.