I love both Polpo and Polpetto, so was hardly likely to be entirely unbiased when it came to trying the third of the Russell Norman trilogy. And it is good. If anything, Spuntino is the best of the three so far.
Like P&P it specialises in small, sharing plates. It has that same distressed feel about it that P&P both have, with old school enamel plates, mismatched tumblers and bare brickwork and lights, but is much airier than either of the P's. It is the atmosphere that sets it apart though: it is much more fun, much more upbeat. There is country/blues (old Johnny Cash, early Elvis, Blind Boys of Alabama, that sort of thing) playing over the sound system. There were tourists looking wide eyed and out of place alongside Soho locals and somebody who looked like Joe Ninety in an M&S cardie, modalising with a size zero, both slurping down each other and the mac & cheese.
The no booking policy is going to grate. As is the service, which is relaxed to the point of forgetfulness. Being democratic, you get here and join the queue. You wait for a space (one table, otherwise a big U shaped bar, with place settings along it). Then you wait for the place setting of the departed person to be cleared (or, this being an American styled joint, the “deseated” person). Then you wait a bit more. Then you fend off some tourist trying to jump the queue. Then you just go and sit down in the place and let them clear it up for you. Not a problem for a late Saturday lunch, but at the height of a sitting, this could be bothersome.
That said, the waiting staff are uniformly friendly, having got that whole baggy trousered look, with vast arrays of underwear and tattoos on display, down perfectly. Now I am not averse to the odd tattoo (and some of these were not only odd, but must have been really quite painful to apply), but I could do without so many stripped jocks being shown: even the aprons were tied below the buttline.
The name Spuntino comes from the Italian for nibbles, and a spuntino of cayenne peppered popcorn was delivered with the water. Despite the name, however, the feel is very North American, with sliders (small buns, filled with “ground” meat) and grits, and the use of “zucchini” and “eggplant”, to describe courgettes and aubergines. Although I am not entirely sure that macaroni cheese could be described as quintessentially American.
The eggplant came in the form of chips, coated in a light batter and served with fennel yoghurt. They were lovely. Crispy coated, soft middles and complementary. Yum. Truffled egg toast is a nice thick slab of bread, hollowed out in the centre for a truffle infused egg to be dropped in and then covered in cheese. Heaven. We tried a slider too, a “ground” (nay minced) beef and bone marrow, which comes in a sweetish bun with pickles. The softshell crab was one I was a little worried about trying. Not that I don’t like softshell crab, quite the contrary: I love the crunchy little fellas, but had been underwhelmed by Polpotto’s version. This was much better: light batter and Tabasco mayonnaise, atop a crunchy fennel salad. Very yum, and extra Tabasco on the counter (along with Coleman’s mustard, Heinz ketchup and an American non-mustard called French’s: the latter one best avoided) to add extra pep if needed.
The only dish that didn’t really do it for me was the cheddar grits. I have had grits before, and never really been that impressed with them. I cannot say that I will try these again, although the cheddar gave them a much stronger flavour than if left plain: cheese tapioca as my companion described it.
The wine list is short, but nearly everything comes by the bottle, carafe or glass. So we had a glass of prosecco whilst we waited for a seat (or rather “while”, in keeping with the whole American theme) and a carafe each of the Traminer and the Primitivo once seated.
Then we had the zucchini pizzetta that they forgot (or, we suspect, gave to another table).
We decided against the coffee (which comes drip only, American diner style), but with six plates, a prosecco each and two carafes, the bill came to just over £50. Then they added one of the carafes that we had to point out to them that they had forgotten to include on the bill. Did I mention that the service was a bit relaxed?
Even when corrected, the bill is exceptionally good for this quality of food and wine in this area of town.
Russell himself was eating here as we left, and he seemed to get good service. For this to be as good as it could be, he needs to ensure that everyone else does too.