Mon–Sat midday–10.30pm, Sun midday–10pm
Polpo describes itself as a ‘bacaro’, or Venetian pub, designed for guests to enjoy a little snack and a beer or glass of wine while perched on a bar stool, or to order several dishes and turn it into a meal. The food might be traditional Venetian, but it is funkily packaged as tapas—and in larger portions than you might expect. With various locations around London and one in Brighton, I visited the latest branch opening on the fifth floor of Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge.
The rustic décor and a slightly odd obsession with linen napkins (draped over factory-style lampshades) give the place a homemade feel, and it’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere that was so welcoming, natural, and relaxing. The atmosphere was social yet respectful, and to my delight I heard Parov Stelar playing quietly through the restaurant. His music is a slick, toe-tappingly soulful stew of neo-swing, house and jazz, transporting you into holiday mode: it perfectly matches the Polpo vibe.
Thankfully it’s a fairly normal crowd—no ostentation, no loud and boisterous diners and—blissfully—no screaming children. Just quiet (tired) shoppers looking for a cocoon of Zen to share some delicious food amidst the rush and frenzy that accompanies shopping—or London.
One thing that particularly stands out is the attentive, helpful, and knowledgeable staff, who are only too happy to explain the menu, advise on how many plates to order, and recommend dishes if you are stuck for choice.
The menu is broken up into cicheti (these really are tapas-sized bites), pizzette, breads, meatballs, meat, fish, and vegetables/salads, making it very easy to want to order at least one dish from each section! With eyes bigger than our stomachs, we went ahead and ordered an impressive range of the dishes from their menu—plus their special cicheti of soft shell crab, with a raw fennel salad and lemon mayo.
Highlights from our feast included the cod cheeks on a bed of green lentils (£8), every aspect of which was succulent and juicy (right down to the lentils), with a minty salsa verde to pull the flavours together, making it the most memorable dish of the evening, and one I have already told plenty of friends about.
The spicy pork and fennel meatballs (£6) featured three large meatballs with the a sweet tomato sauce to balance out the spice and herby fennel, and the zucchini, Parmesan and basil salad (£5) provided fresh, crisp, raw flavours to cleanse the palate.
Sadly there was one dish that didn’t bowl us over—the duck ragu, with black olives and gnocchi (£9). The sauce lacked depth and the flavours hadn’t had time to merge together as a Ragu requires, and the gnocchi was overcooked and soggy.
My partner also ordered the Prosciutto, scamorza and pickled radicchio pizzette (£8) to share, which I felt was a rash move—I mean, pizza with your tapas? But this was arguably one of the freshest (mini) pizzas I’ve ever tasted… Sorry Franco Manca. The lack of tomato sauce was surprisingly not missed (I didn’t even notice there was no tomato until it was pointed out), and the thin base was unbelievably glorious. Fresh, light, that perfect medium between crisp and doughy, and the Scamorza has fast become my favourite cheese – a smoked mozzarella that is pure cheesy bliss. I’d probably return just for the pizzette!
I saw the word ‘Nutella’, and knew that however full I was (absolutely exploding), I had to order the Nutella pizzetta for pudding. To say I’m a Nutella fiend would definitely be an understatement. I panic if we don’t have a ‘back up jar’ in the cupboard, it’s a staple ingredient to my porridge, and I have more than one personalized jar (although so far, they have not been turned into pen jars or plant pots). One year when Tesco was selling them for £1 in time for Pancake Day, I went and bought a dozen.
This Nutella pizza was an odd one though. Tasty—yes. Perfect doughy mini pizza—yes. A guilty, chocolatey pleasure—hell yeah. Being a self-confessed Nutella-addict, I can sniff Nutella from ten feet away (not scientifically proven) and I am almost certain that the dark drizzle of chocolate over the pizza dough wasn’t pure Nutella—it appeared to be adulterated with something (treacle? Caramel?) to make it darker, thinner, and runny; something the chef vehemently denied. It was delicious nonetheless, and obviously I couldn’t really beat the secret out of him with a spatula… but I’m still not convinced.
My partner ordered the Tiramisu as he believes himself to be a bit of a tiramisu-expert and wanted to put it to the test. The tiramisu was beautiful—creamy, velvety, not too rich, and when you dug down the side of the tumbler it was served in to scoop out a portion the rest of the pudding stayed put: perfectly prepared.
Polpo offers a good selection of drinks: classic cocktails as well as modern creations, wines, spritzes, and soft drinks. We had two cocktails and two glasses of wine during the meal, starting with a Negroni Sbagliato and a Bellini as aperitifs. Both were refreshing and tasted decidedly strong, with minimal garnish.
My partner had the Chianti (£14/25cl, £40/bottle), which had bramble oaky undertones, hints of pepper and a velvety finish, while I enjoyed a carafe of Sauvignon Blanc, which was beautifully citrusy and crisp.
Polpo at Harvey Nichols is an exquisite oasis offering calm respite, a concise but tempting menu, and small plates of mouthwatering and inventive food (the lentils with the salsa verde, the raw fennel salad paired with crab, the pickled radicchio all stand out). The Venetian-style menu avoids the stodginess that you often find in Italian restaurants, and most of it is gluten-free thanks to the nature of the small-sized dishes and the individual food sections.
For the time we were sat in Polpo enjoying our food and people-watching from the far corner, I felt I’d escaped London and been on holiday; the vibe is informal, affordable, and zesty. I’ll definitely be coming back—and with more people so I can unashamedly order even more plates.