Tapas-style eating scares me. As someone who is, let's face it, greedy, I tremble at the notion of someone else being able to lean over and help themselves to any plate of food that I have my eye on (which, needless to say, is every plate of food). Fortunately, I think Polpo have come up with the solution: make everything on the menu sound so delicious that you simply have to order far more food than you can possibly eat, and therefore get a satisfying amount of each dish without someone else stealing it.
The format is based on the Venetian bacaro, a wine bar serving cichetti, which are small, bite-size snacks that you'd normally eat standing up at the bar. I think the owners realised that the English might be averse to a) eating their dinner standing up and b) eating things in bite-size portions. The menu is therefore divided into tiny snacks, and larger dishes. To begin with, we had arancini and crostini. Arancini are deep-fried rice balls, a typical Sicilian snack. I ate one in Palermo once that was the size of my head, and I had only a small, flimsy napkin with which to stem the flow of oil that trickled down my wrist as I bit into the creamy, starchy interior. These were very much smaller, about the size of small dumplings. They were non-greasy and immensely satisfying. The fig, prosciutto and mint crostino was very good too - you can't really go wrong with chargrilled bread, fig and ham. I thought mint might be a bit odd, but it worked well.
Then the culinary onslaught began. Dish after dish arrived - I thought I'd been restrained when I ordered, but everything had just been too tempting and we ended up with slightly more than I had anticipated. First, a mackerel tartare served with horseradish and carta di musica, which is a long, wafer thin piece of bread. The tartare was nice and refreshing when eaten alongside all the other dishes we'd ordered, but it didn't taste enough of mackerel for my liking. Perhaps that's because I associate mackerel with a crispy, flavoursome, charred skin, which obviously you miss out on if you eat it raw.
Possibly my favourite was the simplest dish of all: roast pumpkin, prosciutto, and ricotta salata. This cheese is something I've only ever had in Italy or in Italian restaurants (proper ones, like Bocca di Lupo, also in Soho - not Pizza Express), and it is divine - it has the saltiness of parmesan but the creaminess of a good goat's cheese. Sprinkled over a fat wedge of pumpkin, meltingly gold but charred and stickily caramelised in places, the ham draped over it like a blanket, it made a perfect contrast of textures and flavours: salty ham, creamy cheese and sweet pumpkin. The topping of crispy pumpkin seeds finished it off beautifully. It was the quintessence of Italian cooking: totally simple, but utterly wonderful.
Also wonderful was the wild mushroom piadina. Oh, how that word brought a leap of joy to my heart. I discovered piadine in Ravenna a year ago; they're very popular in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It's basically a chewy flatbread made with pig fat as the shortening (so a cross between pastry and bread) which is then stuffed with whatever you like, folded in half and grilled. Like a panino, but infinitely better. The pig fat part sounds gross, but it doesn't taste like that - it just tastes like a chewy pitta bread. I had one in Ravenna filled with parma ham, mozzarella and rocket. I had another filled with a cheese with the most wonderful name - squacquerone - which was like a very mild cream cheese, and caramelised figs - almost black and dripping with aromatic syrup. The inside melts while the outside stays chewy and doughy...oh, it is actual gastronomic heaven. The thought of it fills me with happiness. I genuinely can't believe the idea hasn't caught on abroad, when almost everything else Italian has. Perhaps there is a niche in the market there...you read it here first...
Ah. A tangent. Anyway. Polpo's version was drenched in mushrooms. I'm not sure if you can apply the word 'drenched' to something that isn't liquid, but these mushrooms were so saturated with garlic butter that the dough really was drenched. It had been grilled to crispiness on the outside but was still chewy in the middle, and I think the chef had tipped an entire pan of mushrooms onto it. Beautiful, soft, earthy wild mushrooms. My only criticism is that there was far too much salt, but I was prepared to overlook this for the sheer joy of biting into chewy dough and dark, tangy, garlicky mushrooms.
Who would have thought that the humble panino could ever legitimise its presence on a restaurant menu? Well, stuff it with cured pork shoulder and peperonata (roasted, sweet, soft peppers), and you may never want to eat anything ever again. The peppers in particular were just perfect, juicy and sweet and wonderful against the rich slivers of pork.
Dessert was a struggle. Even for my often-deployed second stomach, it was a challenge. But I wasn't going to pass up a flourless orange and almond cake with mascarpone. It was sweet and syrupy and rather lovely, but perhaps not moist or sharp enough for my liking - this is a very minor complaint, however, and if I hadn't just eaten a lot of rich food, I probably wouldn't care about sharpness. We also had an amazing layered dessert of thin pastry, caramelised apples and raisins. A bit like a deconstructed apple strudel...but somehow so much better.
Please go to Polpo. Its atmosphere is great, the staff are really friendly and it's not bad, price-wise, for London (about £20 a head, depending on how greedy you are). Order more than you think you can eat, and then eat more than you thought you could. It's Italian food, but not as you know it - and this is definitely a good thing.
Incidentally, polpo means octopus in Italian. I have yet to figure out why it's called that. I'm sure there is a reason.