Polpo – A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)
by Simon Tyler
June 22nd, 2012
Russell Norman’s paean to bàccari cucina
Polpo – A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) is the first recipe book from Soho restauranteur Russell Norman. His restaurants (not a chain, more a carefully-curated collection) include the original Polpo, Da Polpo, Sputino, Mishkin’s and the soon-to-be-launched Polpo Spitalfields. We love them all, and they’re featured in our soon-to-be-released Dad’s Guide to London. They’ve become something of an institution, with their pared back philosophy, small but perfectly formed dishes, hip vibe and no booking policy – a long awaited antidote to the prissy, starched tablecloths (and often starchy food) of pre-recession London.
The book is a paean to the cuisine that suggested and inspired the enterprise – the real food of Venice. In his elegant and poetic introduction, Norman takes great care to explain the difference between brash tourist Venice and the hidden city that the locals inhabit. The restaurants of the former:
“Have an appalling an appalling reputation… these places appeal to the lowest-common-denominator needs of the weary tourist who has been on his feet all morning and has developed a carbohydrate deficiency that can be quelled only by mounds of lasagne, bowls of spaghetti and plates of pizza. Abysmal.”
The latter however is fuelled by backstreet bàccari:
“Like tiny canteens of great humility and simplicity… They were basic, they lacked vanity and the food on offer was elemental, made up of one or two fresh ingredients; unpretentious and honest.”
This food is what the restaurants and this book are all about. Delicious and simple little recipes – Chopped chicken liver crostini, Arancini (deep-fried risotto balls), White beans and wild garlic, and desserts like Walnut and honey semi freddo and Blood orange and Campari cake. I dare you to flick through it and not immediately find yourself planning your next five dinners…
Of particular interest to us is that, like the restaurants, the mini dish format is perfect for getting kids to try new ingredients and flavours. We spoke to Russell about the dishes in the book and which ones his own children particularly enjoyed, and he suggested the two recipes below:
My daughters are like Jack Sprat and his wife* and like completely different things. Mabel, the youngest, hates pizza but Martha loves it. Mabel is super-adventurous and will try most things once, Martha will turn her nose up even if she doesn’t like the sound of a dish. Their favourites from the book are the moscardini (marinated baby octopuses) for Mabel and the pizzetta bianca for Martha. I’ve never had the chance to make the dishes for my daughters because they always insist I take them to the restaurant!
*Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.
Polpo – A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman is published by Bloomsbury
Photography © 2012 by Jenny Zarins
Amazon.co.uk – Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts)
©2012 by Jenny Zarins
This simple pizzetta is a variation on the classic Roman Pizza Bianca (not really a pizza at all, more like flatbread with olive oil, rosemary and salt). Our version has two white cheeses and thyme. It is so fragrant and pungent that it turns heads as it is taken through the restaurant. “What was that?” everyone asks. They always order one for themselves.
In this instance, it is better to use dense, cheap mozzarella rather than expensive moist buffalo varieties. The cheaper stuff is very easy to grate and has less water content and therefore melts better.
For one pizzetta:
1 large golf-ball-sized piece of pizza dough
1 small handful of grated block mozzarella
1 small handful of grated Parmesan
1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
About 12-15 picked thyme leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat your oven to its highest setting (250 degC / Gas 9 or above). At the same time, put a pizza stone or baking sheet in the oven to heat up.
Roll the pizza base out to around 20cm in diameter. Evenly distribute the cheeses, the onion and almost all of the thyme over the pizza base. Be sparing – a little goes a long way. If you use too much topping the base won’t be crisp enough. Around 6 minutes on a pizza stone should do for this one. Don’t burn the cheese.
Just before serving, grind on some pepper, sprinkle over a little olive oil and scatter with the remaining thyme leaves.
©2012 by Jenny Zarins
This is a dish that brings a smile to people’s faces. Moscardini are baby octopus and are available by special order, usually frozen, from your fishmonger. The tiny cephalopods are terrifying to the squeamish but great fun to the adventurous. They keep their shape and are remarkably animated with their legs twisting in lovely spirals. They have a gentle texture when cooked and really benefit from this powerful marinade as their natural flavour is rather subtle.
This recipe makes a very large batch, perfect for decanting into small dishes with toothpicks for ease of spearing. Children love these little creatures; just remove any large pieces of chilli.
For a large feast or twenty small portions of party food:
1 kg moscardini (baby octopuses)
1 litre vegetable stock
300ml olive oil
50ml red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 shallot, very thinly sliced (ideally on a mandolin)
Leaves from 1 small bunch of oregano, roughly chopped
Flaky sea salt and black pepper
2 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced on a mandolin or with a razor blacde
1 red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
Defrost and wash the moscardini. Bring a large pan of vegetable stock to the boil and cook the moscardini in it until tender – usually about 10 – 12 minutes on a lively simmer. Drain and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, combine all the other ingredients in a large non-metallic container. Put the cooked moscardini in and make sure they are fully covered. Place in the fridge to marinate for at least 24 hours.
When you serve, make sure each portion has a good array of chillies, fennel seeds, shallot and so on, but not too much oil.