I have only a slight hesitation in recommending that you visit Polpo, a bacaro in London’s Soho.
What’s a bacaro, you ask? It’s a Venetian style wine bar that serves tapas-sized food. Why Venetian? Because the 18th century building in which Polpo resides was once the home of Canaletto, a well-known Venetian painter. Why the slight hesitation? (Boy, you ask a lot of questions.) Because it isn’t the kind of place many people would like: it’s tiny, crowded, young and slightly grungy. But it can also be a lot of fun, and the food is mostly good.
It’s a very small place, only 50 seats in the dining room and 10 at the bar. Ignore the dining room and wait for a seat at the bar. (You’ll probably have to wait anyway as Polpo does not take reservations and it is currently very popular.)
The menu is very Venetian, with such items as cuttlefish and ink risotto, fritto misto, and white anchovies. Prices are reasonable — anywhere from 1 pound for anchovy and chickpea crostino to 11.5 pounds for a plate of cold meats; most items are in the 6-7 pound range. Nothing was oh-my-god wonderful, but everything was good. The anchovy and chickpea crostino was a smear of the tiny fish and garbanzo beans on a crusty slice of bread.
The rabbit, sage and apricot terrine had a nice blend of rabbit and sage with only a hint of apricot. Fritto misto had bits of shellfish and vegetables in a light breading that was perfectly fried. And the sarde in saor, sardines in a sauce of white wine, raisins and pinenuts, was delightfully salty.
I was most looking forward to the polpette, the Italian meatballs that I saw served several times while waiting for my space at the bar. Because dishes are brought out one by one as they become ready, my companion and I had eaten all the other dishes and still no polpette. When I mentioned it to the bartender I told him that if the kitchen forgot about them to just cancel the order — we were already full. But the bartender said, no, those were the best thing on the menu and we really had to have them. And then he returned a few minutes later to say that they were out of polpette.
Feeling a bit chagrined, he offered us a glass of his favorite digestif on him.
We were easily the oldest guests by one or two decades. But despite the youthfulness of the clientele, it is not a rambunctious ambience. But neither is it sedate — it buzzes with a steady din of people enjoying the food and each other’s company.
Wines, like the food, are mainly northern Italy. Put your name on the list for the next seat at the bar, order a tiny carafe of wine, and sit in the front window and watch the crowds go by.
Polpo is at 41 Beak St., London. Here’s a link to Polpo’s Web site.