Sunday, September 9, 2012


A new cookbook deserves the attention of anyone interested in Italian food. Russell Norman’s Polpo [2012] includes Venetian small-plate dishes (cichèti or cicchètti) served in the wine bars (bàcari) of Venice. Although not technically a regional cookbook—Norman subtitled his book “A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts)”—Polpo embraces the spirit of Venetian food.

No doubt Polpo will receive a fair amount of review because its design exposes the signatures and their stitching normally hidden—some might say protected—behind a book’s spine. It’s a pretty gutsy move for a trade book, let alone a cookbook destined to work (and often to get dirty) in a kitchen. But as Norman points out in a short film located on his restaurant’s website [], if you open the book to any page, the book remains flat and open.

In addition to an Introduction and Gazetteer (“a short and subjective guide to some of Venice’s wine bars and restaurants”), Polpo covers cichèti, breads, fish, meat, vegetables, desserts, and drinks. Some of these recipes are uniquely Venetian, such as Sardèle in Saór Crostini (Sweet and Sour Sardines on Toast), Baccalà Mantecato (Salt Cod Spread) and Fegato alla Veneziana (Liver Venetian-style). Many of the other recipes come from different parts of Italy or simply have an Italian spirit. However, all of the recipes share a direct approach where success depends in large part on excellent-quality ingredients. Polpo specifies ingredients that are reasonably available in Britain, the cookbook’s country of origin; United States readers shouldn’t have any significant problems finding ingredients over here.

And what of pasta? Not terribly much, I’m afraid. With its focus on bàcari fare, the book doesn’t contain many pasta dishes. In fact, Polpo has only a few. One of these is Bìgoli in Salsa. Although Polpo the restaurant makes its own whole-wheat bigoli in a torchio (here), Norman doesn’t include this fresh pasta recipe. Damn. Instead, he writes you can “simply use a dried wholegrain spaghetti like all Venetian bàcari do.” No doubt this is true.

I’ll admit being disappointed upon learning that Polpo does not contain a fresh bigoli recipe. I needed a drink to lift my spirits. Thankfully Polpo does include a good Spritz recipe. Norman writes a “Spritz is a mixture of white wine (sometimes sparkling Prosecco is used), a bitter such as Campari or Aperol and a splash of soda water. The garnish should always be a slice of lemon and sometimes an olive too.” Wait! Always a slice of lemon? (And not an orange slice!) And sometimes Prosecco?! Norman continues: “[o]f course, there are many ways to make this drink and you will always find someone with a strong opinion telling you that it must be made this way or it should only ever be made like that…Well, this is how we make ours.”

For one:
  • Ice
  • 1 large green olive, drained of brine
  • 75ml white wine—something simple from Veneto like a Garganega or a Pinot Bianco
  • 50ml either Campari or Aperol
  • Splash of soda water
  • 1 slice of lemon

Take a large tumbler and fill it with ice. Push a large green olive (not one that has been kept in oil) onto the end of a cocktail skewer and pop it in the bottom of the glass. Pour the wine. Pour the Campari or Aperol. Add a short squirt of soda water and then a slice of lemon.

A Spritz tastes like a wonderful Italian holiday and is the most delightful of drinks.  I prefer the really bitter, stronger Campari version; I think the Aperol kind tastes a tad too sweet. I often use Prosecco in place of white wine and soda, and always garnish mine with an orange slice and a huge green olive. (Whoever came up with the idea of pairing a briny green olive with an orange slice in a bright, bitter, red-orange drink deserves a medal and a pat-on-the-back.) Jacob Kenedy’s Bocca Cookbook [2011] also has a delicious Spritz recipe. And a family hero, Enrico Casarosa, has a fantastic riff on the Spritz in his charming book The Venice Chronicles [2008].

Although a British publication, a good independent bookseller can find a copy of Polpo for US readers. The book deserves a broad audience. One final thought: Jenny Zarins’s elegant photographs in this handsome book transport you into a soft, lovely Venetian landscape. She has taken some of the most beautiful photographs of Venice that I have ever seen.