Picking Polpo for a date invites a nauseating question: Oh, but which one? Just chill your lima beans. Whether Soho, Smithfield or Covent Garden, it’s going to be a similar experience: small plates of Italian food to share, tasty wines in little beakers and a simple Venetian setting (wooden tables, chipped paint, rustic as a spruced up wine cellar). Plus with restaurateur Russell Norman behind it, the genius fortysomething Londoner who gave us haute-sliders at Spuntino and a taste of the New York Jewish deli with Mishkins, dating here is an inevitability, whether now or further down the line.
Polpo is as hip as King Charles (well, not quite), the sort of place you can’t reserve but can, à la New York, get yourself down on a list for a table, nursing a Campari at the bar while you wait. Lighting-wise, this place is spot on for a date. Food-wise, who doesn’t like a sharing plate (ahem, cicheti)? Described by some as a humble eatery, it’s more like an aristocratic Duke masquerading as a civilian. A little less smudge on the white walls and I would have been convinced. Nevertheless, I challenge anyone not to find this a foolproof date spot. The exceptional food is just a bonus.
Just a morsel here and a morsel there. But if you want to have a hope in hell of being full, add on some pizzette (small pizzas) and a basket of focaccia to bulk it up. Start with a Campari spritz or a Negroni, then move onto wine. Menu highlights include the anchovy and chickpea crostini, the sliced steak with porcini cream and the fritto misto. For afters, fuse coffee and dessert with an affogato al caffè, ice cream floating in espresso.
Play it casual, play it cool. Send a lunchtime email to your beloved suggesting ‘an early bite at a cute place you know in town’. The inconvenience of not being able to reserve can be counteracted by an early arrival, say 6.30pm at the bar. Nurse your drinks while you wait for the table and politely decline the invitation to eat at the bar; it is neither comfortable nor wide enough for everything you plan on ordering. When seated, keep your concentration on your date, merely glancing at the menu and fondling it every now and again. As I said, it doesn’t really matter what you order, it’s all good, so choose a dish from each category (pizzette, chichetti, meatballs, meat, veg, fish). Rather than imposing the formality of a bottle on the sequence of events, order your wine in rounds. Drag it out for three hours if you can, conversation moving quickly from the trivial to the existential, locking eyes and later stroking hands over the petite tables. If you can, stay till asked to leave and then emerge onto the cobbled streets to kiss against the cool walls until shooed away. Then trip back to theirs.
Everyone knows Polpo. It’s great, but you’re playing it safe.
4. You won’t be too full but you may be too drunk.
[Image courtesy of Paul Winch-Furness.]