Tiny London Restaurant Polpetto Lures Celebrities, Foodies

Russell Norman
Restaurateur Russell Norman. The London restaurateur has opened a second eatery, Polpetto, in Soho. Source: Gerber PR via Bloomberg

It’s lunchtime on opening day at Polpetto and the small eatery in London’s Soho is almost full.

“Mamma Mia!” star Dominic Cooper is here with a friend. There are a couple of food writers, and the other customers -- mostly in their thirties -- have that satisfied demeanor of people who know they are dining in the latest hot restaurant.

On Aug. 25, the lunch guests included Des Gunewardena, chairman and chief executive of D&D London Ltd., the owners of Coq d’Argent and about 20 other London eateries (he was with me); Will Beckett, the owner of Hawksmoor; and Rowley Leigh, chef-patron of Le Cafe Anglais. There are just 28 seats. It was much the same on preview days before the Aug. 23 opening.

Polpetto is the creation of Russell Norman, former director of Caprice Holdings Ltd., where he was responsible for grander restaurants such as Scott’s and the Ivy. He branched out on his own last year, opening Polpo -- another Soho venue -- where you can stand in line for 1 1/2 hours to get one of 50 seats in the dining room.

For all the casualness of Polpetto, Norman has picked a significant location, right above the French House, one of Soho’s most Bohemian pubs. The poet Dylan Thomas was an early regular, according to the website. Brendan Behan wrote there, and there’s a photo on the steps of Polpetto of the painter Francis Bacon leaning against a small brass rail that has now been recovered from the cellar and placed below the picture.

Oliver and Judi

Other former regulars include the actors Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reed, John Hurt, while the dining room has attracted actors such as Julie Christie and Judi Dench.

(The dining room now occupied by Polpetto previously gave birth to St John restaurant, the home of roast bone marrow and salad, one of the most famous U.K. dishes of the past 20 years.)

The menu at Polpetto, as at Polpo, is based on the dishes you can pick up at the bars of Venice but the inspiration for the restaurants owes more to New York than to Italy.

“It’s all of the neighborhood districts downtown,” Norman, 44, said in an interview. “We’re talking about the Lower East Side, the West Village, Greenwich Village, parts of Soho, Little Italy, the Meatpacking District. Take your pick.

“Each of these places has any number of fantastic neighborhood joints that are usually thumping and they inspired the buzz and the feel and the look of the restaurants.

Neighborhood Ambience

“They’re incredibly relaxed. They’re genuinely neighborhood restaurants. You don’t get people traveling from way uptown to go to these places unless they’re particularly good or they’ve been written about or they’re new.”

Polpo’s success created a backlash, with some diners viewing it as the equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes, and pretty threadbare they are. I disagree. Polpo and Polpetto serve honest food, with the focus on flavor rather than culinary fashion. It’s in the nature of things that with dishes starting at 1 pound ($1.55) the food can be hit-and-miss.

Only six dishes from Polpo have made it onto the menu at Polpetto.

The hits include duck-and-porcini meatball; cured pork shoulder and pickled-pepper pizzetta (my favorite); Cotechino and pickled radicchio bruschetta; pea, mint, fennel and ricotta salad; panna cotta, blackberries, biscotti; and lemon and strawberry sgroppino, which is like a smoothie with Prosecco.

The wine list is short -- seven reds and seven whites -- and interesting. The top-priced white, Chardonnay Pojer e Sandri 2008 at 38 pounds, is worth the extra money, but even the house white at 15 pounds is pleasant.

Polpetto doesn’t accept booking for dinner, and you may find yourself cooling your heels in the French House, waiting for the call to let you know that your table is ready.

It’s worth the wait.

Polpetto, upstairs at the French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 5BG. Tel. +44-7734-1969 or click on http://www.polpetto.co.uk/.

The Bloomberg Questions

Cost? About 20 pounds for food. (Or 30 pounds in my case.)

Sound level? Loud: 80 decibels plus, even at lunch.

Inside tip? Try for a window table.

Special feature? Taste of Bohemian Soho.

Will I be back? Yes.

Date place? Yes.

Rating? ***

What the Stars Mean
**** Incomparable food, service, ambience
***  First-class of its kind.
**   Good, reliable.
*    Fair.
0    (no stars) Poor.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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