All the early warning signs are there: dingy Soho back-alley; wooden banquettes; water poured from reclaimed wine bottles into a toddler’s glass – the arithmetic is by no means comforting. On entering Polpetto one expects to leave with an empty stomach and no remaining worldly possessions, such is the malaise associated with ‘small plates’ dining.
It is what you cannot see, however, that subverts the ‘Tapas-but-not-Tapas’ expectations: the kitchen. My understanding is that while the venerable Florence Knight may no longer be at the helm, whoever has taken the wheel is doing a bloody good job. Polpetto is turning out fine fare at fine prices: a combination better than Barolo and veal but harder to find than a real Venetian in St Mark’s Square.
The menu is a crescendo of cichèti through pizzette to meat and fish dishes. You require the appendages of a small octopus and the gut of a city-state to make a good fist of all that is on offer. The plates come thick and fast. I must admit, the context of the lunch was client related and if either of my guests are disposed to think less of someone inhaling their food then I imagine it might be the last meeting we have together…
The octopus skewers to start were accomplished; perfectly tender and succulent, thankfully, as it would have been criminal to over-griddle the restaurant’s namesake. Likewise the mussels with agretti – an Italian, samphire-like plant historically used as a source of soda ash essential in glassmaking – were excellent. The mussels themselves were bulbous and the jus in which they bathed was crystalline flecked with red squares of chili, like a disk of something crafted in Murano.
Chasing the primi out of the kitchen was another celebration of the ocean: a sea bream secondi, perfectly soft with skin crispier than bed sheets at the Cipriani, astride a school of shrimp and two rustic hunks of roasted fennel. Trotting behind was a flank steak and aubergines camouflaged by lamb’s leaf. The plate was oilier than the Gulf of Mexico but the virgin was so extra that it was easy to forgive the mouthfeel – the interplay of beef, perfectly salted vegetation and olives was immense.
Any embarrassment drawn for my over-excited mastication was assuaged when both clients ordered Nutella pizzette for dessert. It was like a scene from Freaky Friday. I stared at them aghast, suspecting they had been possessed by their teenage offspring. Nevertheless I sucked up my pride and succumbed to a slice. Hopefully my readers do not require a reviewer to inform them that chocolate spread, nuts and sweetened bread is pleasant. I feel as though we missed a trick, however, not plumping for the Tiramisu, which was served tableside from a ceremonial bowl with a ladle.
Exactly like taking a boat from the Floating City to Marco Polo Airport, I left Polpetto longing to return and finding myself back in a gritty backwater of Soho was a hard landing. This restaurant is fantastic and is a paragon of Bib Gourmand dining, but I urge you not to go – I want to keep it all for myself.