Da Polpo is the latest restaurant from Russell Norman, and is another in the same Venetian Bacaro style as his previous Polpo and Polpetto (which I still have yet to visit) to join their Americanised sibling Spuntino as an even more laid back, casual dining alternative for the West End. I already had my sights set on visiting as close as possible to their opening date of 2nd June; having completely fallen for Spuntino, I was eager to see what this new restaurant in Covent Garden could offer. So when I discovered the planned opening had been brought forward three days, It offered me a double win; not only a fantastically bargainous soft opening 50% discount on their food, but even more importantly, falling on bank holiday meant I could actually get into London and with nothing better to do until the evening, indulge…excitement!
Da Polpo looks really quite sweet from outside, almost twee, painted a striking green it doesn’t allude much to the quite deceptively vast space inside. This is the main difference between here and Spuntino; where Spuntino is super cool, edgy, intimate and kind of spunky in the heart of Soho, Da Polpo fits quite nicely into Coven Garden. The vibe is distinctly relaxed; open and friendly and I’m transported to a place you find only in memories of holidays past. I turned up half expecting to have to wait for a seat; so intense has the anticipated opening been if you follow Twitter. In reality the spacious room with seats for 70 odd, is not even half full (this could well be partly due to my rather odd dining time of 3.30) and I have my pick of seats. I opt for a stool at the large bar towards the back of the room, nestled by the wall it’s a perfect little corner to retire and view the room around me. These seats are left free for walk ins, although the table seats are bookable only for lunch, this bar area is duplicated downstairs on a smaller scale I notice when I pop downstairs to use the toilets. The stylish, raw, low hanging lights make a welcome appearance here too, but I’m struck even more by the beautiful natural light emenating from the large skylight above, that also forewarns of the soaking I’m about to recieve reminding me I’m, alas, still back home in London.
The menu, as in Spuntino, takes the form of a brown paper place mat and the similarities don’t stop there; the menu is set out in the same way, except the slightly quirkier dishes and sliders are now replaced with a whole section of pizzettes and meatballs. It’s pretty clear that the star of the show here is the meatballs, I find myself torn between trying various meatball dishes, served as they are in a sort of tapas style (although this is more ideally suited for sharing as 3 LARGE meatballs are served per portion) or with spaghetti as more of a main dish. What immediately draws my attention when I clap eyes on it is described as ‘piadina meatball smash’ partly because I’m always drawn to anything bread based on a menu but more pertinently because I’ve spent all weekend perfecting my own recipe for piadina, intrigued as I’ve not yet tried them in this country, they seem to have snuck onto a few menus recently.
I elect to delay what I’m hoping is the star dish though and start with one of the pizzettes, they all sound tempting but I finally decide to go for the grilled mortadella, gorgonzola and pickled radicchio. It arrives exquisitely puffed up and crispy, the perfect vessel for beautifully married rich meat, spicy blue cheese and wonderfully sharp pickle. I accompany this with a simple but delicious fennel, endive and almond salad; the clean flavours providing an ideal foil for the pizza.
I order my piadina next which comes with your choice of two meatballs, I’m clearly unable to make that decision, as my waiter leans in a smidge closer and suggests, as though telling me a little secret, that it’s possible I could have one of each. Result! I choose one lamb and mint, and one spicy pork and fennel. It turns up looking really like quite a monstrous plate of food and I momenterrily worry I’ve over ordered. Fear not, my pigginess shines through and I devour every mouthful with glee; the meatballs, as the name suggests are smashed and folded into a flatbread, which is basically the same as the pizzette bases, to create a kind of loose sandwich oozing with lashings of sweet tomato sauce and gooey strings of cheese. The lamb is good, delicately flavoured with mint, but it’s the pork meatball that’s the real winner, juicy, sweet and spicy all at once with a good fennel kick.
Feeling full now, I’m still determined to try something from the dessert section, normally the nutella pizzette would be a no brainer but having already tried and loved it at Spuntino, and having already eaten my body weight in pizza base I give it a miss. I don’t find anything else overly inspiring on the short menu section (although when I see cherry ice cream cones bobbing past I make a mental note for next time – they look so fun!) so I plump for something light, and the bellini sgropino is just that; a small glass filled with peach puree, prosecco and lemon sorbet, it’s zesty, refreshing and a lovely, pleasantly boozy finale to my leisurely lunch which I complete with a double espresso.
I can see Da Polpo doing exceptionally well in this location, perfectly placed to capture a broad range of diners, offering unchallenging food that is satisfying and comforting, ideal for sharing but equally easy to nibble on your own to your hearts content. I felt happy to sit at my own at the bar, the service is unobtrusive and I felt unharassed, grazing and sipping negronis for around an hour. I don’t think the food is particularly cheap, but it’s also not expensive, and I think you’d get even better value by dining in a group and sharing lots of dishes (I’m already planning on bringing friends so we can devour more of the menu). My bill was slightly over £30 with the 50% discount but this included two full price negronis and an espresso. Cocktails I have to mention are a complete steal at around £6 each though, and still half the price of many places in the area as well as being expertly created! I’ve quickly added Da Polpo to Spuntino as one of my top London restaurants; somewhere I can pop in unbooked, with or without company, and eat the kind of food I actually want to, in an environmet that makes me happy. I can assure you I’ll be back to sample more of the menu and enjoy a little siesta from the regularities of normal life soon.