Da Polpo is the fourth outpost from restaurateur Russell Norman and closer to the Beak Street original in size and atmosphere than the middle, smaller two. The bare walls, industrially salvaged furniture and fittings and dim lighting remain a common theme. I'm beginnning to think that Norman has shares in one of the reclaimation companies, or alternatively is manufacturing former industrial shabby chic from scratch, extruding it out by the roomful in a dark pit of indentured workers somewhere in a former Soviet state.
The service is bright, funky and considerably more tattooed than yours truly, the sparse and snacky drinks and food menus appears on clipboards and as artfully recycled placemats and even at 9:30 on a wet and windy Wednesday they still having trouble seating you. So far, so fair for another Norman conquest.
We arrived and grabbed a seat at the downstairs bar which meant we got to eat sooner, though did leave us feeling like we were in an East German factory canteen. The lighting is low, the murmur was loud but the smell from the kitchen was divine… Perched at the battered zinc bar (another division in the owner's manufacturing empire no doubt) we kicked back with an Aperol spritz and perused the familiar menu.
We went on recommendation in the end, a selection from the different sharing plates littering the list, happy enough to chat and take the suggestions of the cool but knowledgable staff. Starting and finishing with rounds of arrancia, little hot shotputts of risotto rice round a molten mozzarella core, fried with a crisp toothsome breadcrumb crust. Textbook examples of a relatively simple bar snack, you'd be slightly pissed if you queued an hour for one, but better than a rather plain chicken liver crostini, too much pate with that drying sensation of the meat left it a little cloying in the mouth, less would have been more here.
The nearest to a main in size was a shared plate of Frito Misto, seafood selection (in reality 95% of it was prawns, calamari and whitebait) competently deep fried, maintaining the integrity of the fish without being doused in oil, though oddly served without an aoili to cut through the crumb. It may be authentic, but the lemon wedge didn't do enough to lift it from dryness. Better still was the pork shoulder pizzette, one of 6 or 7 baby pizzas, a smear of rich pasata covering the small, crisp base with thin slices of smoky marbled shoulder, all cut through with piquant peppers. Having eaten similar recently, cooked by a local Italian mama from a pizza oven facing the open air, I can attest to the authenticity of these little plate shaped platters of goodness.
Like the other branches, the meatballs are excellent. Not afraid to bring up the accompanying herbs, fennel in the case of the ones we went for, they're punchy cannonballs of well seasoned meat. the seasoned tomato sauce a great accompaniment and, after another round of those arrancia (OK, maybe they are worth waiting for when served hot and fresh, dripping with mozz) we stumbled off into the night.
So is anything really different to the other branches of the ‘chain’? And does it matter when the quality is high enough? While there's an element of Norman by Numbers about Da Polpo, for the neighbourhood (deepest, darkest touristic Covent Garden) it's nice to have another option in the area, though by the time you've waited for a table, there'll be another one along to take the crowd.