Big Mamma has made a big splash in 2019. The French restaurant group has eight venues in Paris, one in Lille and has followed the Eurostar to London, where it took Shoreditch by storm in the early part of the year with the retro trattoria on everyone’s lips, Gloria.
This follow-up has pretty much doubled Gloria’s size but has minimised the hipness – a new-build office block off Oxford Street ain’t Old Street. Still, the lack of exclusivity is the key to its charm: with most of the 280 seats given to walk-ins (once you’ve queued) and nothing on the pizza- and pasta-led menu over £20, Circolo Popolare combines cheesy coolness with the popular touch.
It’s a huge space, but something catches the eye at every turn, from the plants dangling from the ceiling and creeping around the big terrace to the walls lined with spirits bottles and religious knick-knacks, the cheeky view between the gents’ and ladies’ loos, and booths that look like they’ve been hewn from lava from Mount Etna. (the restaurant is nominally Sicilian-themed, though this is not the place to come in search of authentic cucina siciliana).
Music that would not have disgraced a Wall’s Cornetto advert plays from the sound system while wipe-clean menus look like the title sequence of a Carry On film. You half expect a giant pepper pot to heave into view – until you see a cocktail mug shaped like a pair of breasts heading to the nearest hen party. We couldn’t escape the feeling that we were at a children’s party for adults.
Given the emphasis on spectacle (and the copious amounts of alcohol swilling around), the food is better than it needs to be, though prepare yourself for the mamma of carb come-downs afterwards. We kicked off with rotolo con 7 erbe – a doughy roll filled with cheese and herbs that suggested that pizzas with groan-inducing names (John Malkofish, I Wanna Nduja) would be a good bet. Empanadas had crisp pastry, but were light on the pork filling.
Spaghetti carbonara, brought to the table swirled out of a wheel of Pecorino cheese, is so deliriously rich you’ll be grateful for the small portion (though at £16 for two to share, it’s not bad value). A protein-dense skewer of sausages made from Tuscan cinta sensese pork provided a break from the carbs; a salad (chopped veg or caprese) would have made a lighter side order.
Puddings deliver the sort of head-spinning sugar rush that will have you climbing the walls if the wine and cocktails haven’t dulled yours senses. The Circolo Sundae lives up to its XXL billing with cookie chunks, churros and brownies bound together with a mountain of whipped cream – as delicious as a gigantic McFlurry, but so massive that we preferred the marginally smaller portion of Dessert Island, a sweet toffee creation of beautifully whipped egg whites, caramel and custard.
The signature lemon meringue pie, sadly, had sold out by 8pm, as had the deep-fried courgette flowers and veal escalope skewers. But it’s hard to feel short-changed by somewhere that delivers cheapish thrills served up with so much fun – and the young Italian staff are lovely.