I’d be surprised if you hadn’t come across the names of Russell Norman or Polpo but, in case you’ve been living in a caravan in Wales for the last 10 years, here is a brief, potted biog. Russell is the indefatigable restaurateur (and former chef) behind the popular Italian eaterie, an atmospheric, buzzy version of a Venetian bàcaro, with friendly staff serving cichèti (small plates) in 5 locations in the UK – think exposed brickwork with a rustic / industrial feel. He has written 3 award-winning cookbooks including Venice: Four Seasons of Home Cooking. Presented a 6 part factual series (The Restaurant Man) on the BBC – helping aspirant restaurateurs make a success of their dreams. He even finds time to write a food column for Esquire as “The Accidental Cook” Phew! I’m exhausted simply thinking about his prodigious output of work!
Fuseblower caught up with Signor Norman at Polpo in Beak Street just after he had appeared at the PX Food & Drink Festival (alongside Luca Dusi from Passione Vino) and in the run up to Polpo’s 10th anniversary celebrations. More on that later. Russell is a vigorous proponent of Italy and especially N.E. Italy, for food, wine and culture. (Polpo’s Beak Street location was chosen because legendary 18th Century Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal – aka Canaletto – lived in the building!). Fuseblower wanted to find out Russell’s thoughts on food, wine, cocktails, cucina and la bella figura
Polpo’s wine list is split between 10 white wines and 12 reds with a couple of rosès thrown into the mix. They also offer own label wines and 3 proseccos. If you ever watched “The League of Gentlemen” (BBC comedy series) you may remember that Hilary Briss, the unorthodox local butcher, offered his “special stuff’ to customers ‘in the know’, when they visited his shop. One of the customers used to say “I know it’s wrong; but it tastes so good”. And so it is with 2 of the fabulous prosecco’s Russell has on the concise wine list, that he happily encourages you to try: Malibran Col Fondo NV & Col Vetoraz Extra Dry 2016. The latter is his favourite because of its poise and elegance and being the complete antithesis of the slew of meh prosecco’s on the market. He has a strong attachment to N E Italian grape varieties such as Garganega, Trebbiano, Bianca Fernanda and Corvina which go into the whites from Custoza D.O.C, (eg Cavalchina Bianco Di Custoza), Soaves – especially the cult Classico from Pieropan, which he adores – and Amarone
I’d imagined that Amarone, maybe Barolo and Brunello’s would feature high on his list of go to reds but I shouldn’t have been at all surprised when he reeled off a list of French reds that he has a fondness for and special memories of drinking. Wines with a sense of place that certainly resonate with his wide ranging tastes. Domaine Tempier in Bandol sprang readily to his mind, as did Château de Beaucastel from Famille Perrin in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
He is nostalgic about the wine lists at The French House & St John (Fergus Henderson’s groundbreaking restaurants) and cites Château Malescot-St-Exupéry, a 3ème Cru Classé Margaux, as his favourite claret. He confesses to a slight infatuation with Burgundy and is almost rapturous when he discloses how much he’s looking forward to sharing a magnum of Nuits-Saint-Georges 1999 with 3* Michelin chef, Pierre Koffmann, at The Compasses Inn at Crundale nr Canterbury (Russell has a house close by at Pluckley in Kent). His greatest indulgence he confesses is Jacquesson Champagne and it doesn’t just stop at his admiration and respect for what the brothers Chiquet are achieving in Dizy. I ask him what is the best food and wine combo that gets his blood pumping. His reply is somewhat disarming: “aged Parmigiano Reggiano with 2008 Jacquesson Dizy Corne Boutray Brut” [Note to self: This will now be my next must try palate tingler!]
As our conversation continues I am desperate to ask him for his take on cocktails with Italian ingredients. What, in his opinion, makes the best Negroni? (Antica Formula Carpano vermouth, Beefeater gin + Campari, is a devastating fusion, he ventures). What cocktail could one expect to be served at Palazzo Norman? – get yourself ready for a Cynar Gin Fizz (Beefeater gin, Cynar liqeur, lemon juice, Gomme syrup, + cucumber garnish). Bitter but palatable is his maxim. This cocktail is also available on the Polpo drinks list
He was up for a playful, quickfire Q&A, for me to get a glimpse of a side of Russell’s character that his adoring public may not already know. Starting with: Greatest Italian, Living or Dead? Russell picks Leonardo da Vinci – for Leo’s many contributions to mankind. His favoured haunts for sipping a glass of wine in Venezia are Vino Vero and Adriatico Mar– both wine bars that promote natural wines. Here are some of his other preferences…
Grappa or Amaro? Amaro
Prosciutto or Speck? Speck
Lido di Venezia or Amalfi? Lido
Taggiasca or Nocellara olives? Taggiasca
Barolo or Amarone? Barolo
Puccini or Rossini? Puccini
Caravaggio or Canaletto? Canaletto
Carnivale or Biennale? Biennale
Carpaccio or Bresaola? Carpaccio
Parmigiano or Pecorino? Parmigiano
Totti or Pirlo? Totti
Noble Rot or The Remedy? Noble Rot
My curved ball questions to him were: You’ve just won best-dressed restaurateur and beaten Giorgio Locatelli into 2nd place! To celebrate this achievement is it going to be Prosecco, Pignoletto, Franciacorta, Brachetto or Falanghina? Laughing heartily, he says he’d be more than happy with Col Vetoraz Extra Dry 2016 prosecco. I follow this up by quizzing him about what would be in his cool box if he was taking Monica Bellucci on a picnic. It transpires Ms Bellucci can confidently expect to have Jacquesson Champagne & aged Parmigiano laid out on a gingham tablecloth to tantalise her tastebuds
I am curious if he has a signature dish that he cooks at home. He is most fond of Venetian blue collar recipes, the food of genuine workers in a city that has rapidly become almost his second home. So I’ve included his recipe and cooking instructions for Bigolini in Salsa (below)
So what do you do if you’re commemorating 10 years of Polpoliciousness…? Well, if you’re Russell Norman, you get 5 of your chefy mates to each create a ‘special’ course so that their dish will individually feature on the Polpo menu, for a week each in September, and then on September 30th all 5 dishes will be part of a Menu di Festa to celebrate a decade of Polpo. This menu will be augmented by enduring classics including ‘Nduja arancini; crab, celeriac, apple & caper bruschetta; spicy pork and fennel polpette. The chefs participating, you may be interested to learn, are: Angela Hartnett MBE, Florence Knight, Francesco Mazzei, Stevie Parle and Rachel Roddy. Not too shabby a roster I think you’ll agree!
What’s on the horizon for Russell? Well he plans to continue to imbue Polpo with the most sedulous care, gather together recipes for a new book on salads, (truly!); persevere in conquering our palates with Cynar Gin Fizzes, cook Risi e Bisi at home for his family and uphold his role as the unofficial UK Ambassador for La Serenissima. Auguri Russell!!
Bigolini in Salsa alla Russell Norman
6 Large Onions
1 Tin Anchovies (fresh would be even better if you can get them)
Glug (generous!) of White Wine eg Bianco di Custoza or Soave Classico
1 packet Bucatini pasta
Fresh Flat Parsley
Black Pepper + Sea Salt
Slice the onions thinly then sauté them in olive oil for about 20 mins until glossy and translucent (don’t overcook them!). Once the onions have reached the semiopaque stage press the anchovies into them using the back of a fork.
Pour yourself a glass of the wine before splashing a generous measure into the cooking pan. Reduce the sauce on a higher heat. Put a large pan of salted water on to boil (enough salt so it is as saline as the Venetian lagoon!), once it is on a rolling boil tip in the Buactini pasta and cook until al dente. Add a small cup of the pasta liquid to the reduced sauce, stir in some chopped parsley and black pepper before adding the strained pasta, ensuring everything is coated with the onion and anchovy emulsion. Garnish with a little more parsley and a twist or two of the pepper mill, then serve on warm plates. A Soave Classico from Pieropan or a Cavalchina Bianco Di Custoza would be a sublime pairing. Salute e buon appetitio a tutti!