Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Polpo and a glimpse (and taste) of real Venice

Venice isn't particularly renowned for its food and it certainly isn't what draws people to the city (although everyone should visit the Rialto market – see pictures). Visitors might have enjoyable memories of the local fizz, Prosecco and, of course, Bellinis but they probably have less favourable experiences in many of the city's overpriced and unremarkable restaurants. BUT (and this is a very big but) scratch the surface of Venice and you will come across café/winebars called bacari. Traditionally, Venetians visit them for a quick glass of wine or a coffee and to snack on a few cicheti (a sort of Italian tapas), often leaving after several minutes to go on to the next bacari. They are a godsend to visitors as, not only do they offer a rare glimpse of authentic Venice but, unlike so much here, you don't leave feeling completely fleeced.

Bacari have been the inspiration for the recently opened Polpo in London's Soho. The premises have been home to many restaurants over the years and I had a sense of déjà vu when I recently met up with a friend to try it out. She was slightly delayed and I was very comfortable sitting, waiting for her with a newspaper, bread and olive oil and some refreshing Trebbiano-Garganega from their selection of mainly northern Italian wines. About half the wines are also available in quarter-litre and half-litre carafes to allow for some experimentation.

Once my friend arrived we homed in on the tasty selection of crostini and cicheti before sharing a couple of main courses and some vegetable dishes. These were all very tasty, but the melt-in-the-mouth octopus salad really stood out (as it should, given the name of the place). Even with a couple of puddings and more wine, our bill came to about £30 per head. There were a couple of problems: the noise level is high, particularly as they have unnecessary background music. There was also too much thickly sliced toasted ciabatta bread. They helpfully found me something more delicate to accompany my pear and gorgonzola, as my gums had started to get quite sore by the end of the meal. Gripes aside, Polpo is well worth a visit for a great value, buzzy evening in the heart of London. Perfect pre- or post-theatre as long as you don't have to wait too long as bookings aren't taken.

Back to Venice – good examples of the real thing can be found in little backstreets behind the Rialto market in the San Polo district and near the Ca' d'Oro (Cannaregio). Al Bottegon (Dorsoduro), with its pretty location overlooking the San Trovaso canal, stands out in my mind as it doubles as a wine shop. Happy memories.

41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB


  1. Hi Lucy, great write up on Polpo and i completely agree with you! It was incredibly 'unspecial' for me. In fact, i think most of us could make better 'Bacari' at home. It was noisy, cramped and despite a booking, we had to wait 20 mins! I'm glad not everybody is full of trend-following praise for it! Its fun, but not somewhere you go for great food, its a lunch pit-stop i think!

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