Situated within the London dwellings of Venetian painter Canaletto, it seems almost fitting that this traditional Ventian style bacaro from Polpo plates up simple but authentic dishes and drinks set against a dressed down setting akin to those found within the city itself. Polpo Beak Street Soho is relaxed and informal in ambience with a focus entirely on socialising and of course, eating. The restaurant cashes in on the growing love for small plates (or cicchetti if you’re in Venice) and it’s this that definitely brings in the Venetian feel that food is more of a social occasion than just a necessity of life. If you’ve ever walked by a bacaro on Venice you’ll hear the laughter of locals and tourists alike spill out onto the street as they indulge in 2euro cicchetti plates and sip on a glass of ombre (white wine) or a Spritz made of Aperol or Campari.
When a table of 5 of us sat down to eat at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, the restaurant itself was already a buzz with chatter and I was thankful I’d chosen to book online in advance. When Polpo first opened its doors, its popularity meant that reservations weren’t available and diners would have to queue outside on the street for a table or even to grab a seat at the bar for a quick bite to eat. That’s some New York style demand right there. At high summer in London following a few hours at the National Gallery and Covent Garden, the afternoon called for a cooling apertivo in the form of an Aperol Spritz garnished with a green olive. With five hungry bellies to feed, we jumped straight to the menu and reeled out a list of cicchetti dishes we’d like (all of them, FYI) followed by a selection of dishes from the pizzette, fish and meat courses. Small plates are designed to be shared, and share we did! Ordering 16 dishes in total between us and a couple of rounds of spritz (and red wine!) it allowed us to taste a little bit of almost everything on the menu. Dishes are served quickly and consecutively meaning that the table is never without food. As soon as one dish was finished, another took its place and so on.
A few cicchetti to begin with – arancini (risotto balls in a crispy breadcrumb coating), Potato & Parmesan crocchette, / Coppa & Peperonata crostini (traditional italian pork served with sweet peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic on small slices of toasted bread) / Stuffed fried olives / Tuna & leek crostini / Marinated baby octopuses – all akin to what you’d pick up for a a couple of euro in a traditional bacaro and each delicious in taste and texture. The tuna and leek crostini was creamy with a crunchy base, the coppa and peperonata a sweet tang, a warm gooey taste from the arancini and the chewy almost metallic taste of the baby octopus.
We were thoroughly spoiled for choice with our fish, meat and salad dishes and were treated to a conveyor belt services of taste sensations. The fritto misto was lightly battered and tasted delicious with a sprinkling of lemon juice, the scallops were tender and served in a delicious broth with pancetta, fresh peas and baby gem lettuce and the fish cakes melted in the mouth. That caper and dill aioli though – I could use that to dip everything in it for the rest of my life.
A fresh palette cleanser came in the form of the pea, radish, feta and mint salad and although a little soggy and tasteless as dish by itself (sorry Polpo!) the fried gnocchi, rainbow chard pesto & young pecorino was delicious accompanied by the meat dishes, especially the roast pork belly with apricot and sage.
Full to the brim at this point and our bill making its way to the table, we realised we hadn’t received the final two dishes from our order, the fresh pappardelle, rabbit & pancetta ragu
and flank steak, Portobello mushroom & truffle cream served on a bed of rocket. Full of apologies our server pushed the last two dishes through giving us an opportune moment to let our food settle. We certainly over estimated how much we could eat. The flank steak was delicious and the creamy earthy taste of the truffle went well with the peppery rocket and succulent meat and the rabbit ragu was a showstopper dish. Being used to eating rabbit as part of a tomato based ragu, the simplistic serving of tender meat and pancetta in a rich cream based sauce was simply equisite.
Dishes at Polpo Beak Street range from £1.50 to £12.50, though most are in the £6-9 bracket for a small plate. You can expect to pay around £30-£35 per person to eat and drink well and and to cover the 12.5% service charge. There are 8 Polpo restaurants in total, 6 of which are based in London (one in Ape & Bird, Shaftesbury Avenue), one in Brighton and the most recent addition to the family in Bristol.
Fun fact – if you stand at the bar or counter in Venice as opposed to taking a seat, the 12.5% service charge is wavered. I’m not sure if this is the case in Polpo but it’s worth bearing in mind – I always find that if you’re stopping by for a quick drink & bite to eat you’ll receive a much more personal service at the bar.
Read more about Venetian Cicchetti and how to eat on a budget in Venice – including a Cicchetti tour in my recent post.