Love Italian? We reveal the secrets of Venetian cuisine

Forget piles of pasta and dustbin-lid sized pizza. The small but beautiful secret of Venetian cuisine has arrived. Simon Usborne says 'Ciao!'

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

Serves 4

1 kilo of pork belly

1 head radicchio

200g hazelnuts

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

Serves 4

For the pasta:

200g of Buckwheat Flour

100g of 00 flour

3 eggs

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

Serves 4

2 fennel

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.

Suggested Topics
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick