Small plates, big flavours


Emma Dance visits Polpo, the restaurant bringing a taste of Venice to Bristol

Polpo first burst onto the foodie scene seven years ago when it opened on Soho’s Beak Street. Reviewers swooned and soon people were queuing round the block to sample its different take on Italian cuisine based on the casual and rustic backstreet ‘bacaro’ of Venice. Awards followed, along with more branches in the capital – then at the end of last year founder and serial restaurateur Russell Norman decided to spread the Polpo love further afield opening in Brighton, and then Bristol at the end of the summer.

It’s hard to know exactly how to define Polpo, but one thing it’s not is your run-of-mill Italian. You won’t find lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese, or cheese-laden pizzas; instead you’ll find a tastebud-tantalising array of delectable small plates all designed for sharing in the style of Spanish tapas. The menu is divided into different sections based on the main ingredient (meat, fish, vegetables, etc), and having been advised by our waitress to order two to three dishes per person we decide to delve into the selection as deeply as possible.

Fried olives stuffed with anchovies (£4) are the first to arrive and are a revelation. Managing to simultaneously be both crispy and juicy and with a delightful salty tanginess, they are the ultimate bar snack. Since Polpo means octopus, it seems appropriate to try the marinated baby octopus with artichoke and fennel seeds (£4). They don’t disappoint, with a fresh and light flavour and an al dente texture without a hint of chewiness.

The spinach, Parmesan and soft egg pizzette (£8) has a crisp, wafer-thin base, and although there’s no tomato sauce, it’s none the worse for it, with the oozing golden yolk adding both moisture and richness.

Polpo is known for its meatballs, and we don’t take much persuading to try the spicy pork and fennel variety (£7, or £9 with spaghetti). They are the size of cricket balls, firm but not too dense, and drenched in a velvety-smooth tomato sauce. The slight aniseed-sweetness of the fennel came through well, but without being overpowering. There wasn’t much evidence of the spice, but it wasn’t missed.

A towering pile of fritto misto (£9) was predominantly squid – both rings and tentacles – punctuated by courgette fries and the occasional prawn. The batter was light and crunchy and what it may have lacked in variety more than made up for in flavour with every element perfectly cooked. Personally I think a bit of mayo for dipping wouldn’t have gone amiss, but it probably isn’t in the authentic spirit.

The final arrival to the table – beef shin ragu with fresh rigatoni (£9), might have been the biggest triumph (although it was a close-run thing), with meltingly soft meat and a deep, rich sauce that clung to the tubes of pasta.

Sweet treats come in the form of desserts or dolcetti (smaller bites). I need no convincing to to try two dolcetti – chocolate salami (£4) and ricotta doughnuts (£3). The salami is sinfully good, with rich chocolate studded with biscuits, nuts and dried fruit and sprinkled with flakes of salt to enhance the flavours, and the doughnuts are little mouthfuls of pure pleasure with a crisp outer shell concealing a creamy centre and all smothered with enough cinnamon sugar to give your dentist a coronary. Although they came from the dolcetti part of the menu, they were no smaller than the tumbler of tiramisu (£5) from the dessert selection and I had to enlist the help of my husband to finish it all. The tiramisu was light and creamy, with the right balance of coffee bitterness and marsala sweetness.

With impeccable cooking, great ingredients and interesting dishes, like its namesake – this restaurant’s got legs.

50 Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2NH
0117 973 3100 

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