The Restaurant Man pioneered the small plates revolution in Britain with his Polpo empire. Now he’s going back to basics with Trattoria Brutto, a single but perfectly formed Tuscan offering in Smithfields.
Now no longer involved in the Polpo restaurants with which he was so long synonymous, the erstwhile king of Soho dining’s focus will be exclusively on Brutto – a fact that stands it in excellent stead. For although the move from Venetian-style small-plates to hearty Tuscan fare might not seem seismic to some, for this detail-driven restaurateur, the shift is considerable. He is, after all, someone for whom the interiors and atmosphere are every bit as important as what’s being served up on the plate and to whom no detail is deemed not worth worrying about.
Take Polpo. The tattooed and artfully scruffy waiting staff were as crucial to its ambiance and success as the no-reservations policy which, in turn, was as vital as the excellent negronis and the cicchetti that the kitchen tirelessly sent out. Now though, he says, Brutto – which means ‘ugly’ and refers to the Italian saying, ‘brutto ma buono’ (ugly but good) – will mark a more grown-up expression of his lengthy periods spent living and dining in Italy. As its name hints, it will emphatically not exist to court Michelin’s inspectors, but rather to offer warmth and comfort in a beautiful setting, at which he intends to be fully present, greeting guests, polishing glasses and serving steak at the table – ideally for the next twenty-odd years.
It marks, in so many ways, a return to basics for Russell. For starters, there will be just one restaurant, as in the heady early days of Polpo. But it also calls back to the days when, after he left his job as an English and drama teacher, he worked as a bartender and a maitre’d at Joe Allen, before being snapped up by Caprice Holdings, where he was operations director across restaurants including The Ivy, J Sheekey and Scott’s. He is, then, a man who knows his business from top to bottom and in whose care one can relax completely for a couple of hours while eating excellent and unfussy food – and what more, truly, can we ask of dining out than that?
It may only have been a matter of months since Russell Norman has been away from the dining game, but we are truly glad to have him back. All hail Brutto, which promises to be a tonic for our times.
Images: Chris Floyd; Jason Knott; Laura Fletcher; Scott Grummett
We were so thrilled to hear about the impending launch of your new restaurant, Trattoria Brutto, in Smithfields. Could you tell us a bit about the concept?
When I’m travelling in Italy, the places I like to eat are often very simple, homely, family-run restaurants with a traditional menu serving authentic home-cooking. No one is trying to reinvent the wheel, no one is showing off with ‘their’ twist on a classic dish, no one is interested in fads or trends. These restaurants are very low concept, but I love them. I wanted to create a place like that in London.
The name is brilliant. What was the inspiration behind it?
There is an Italian expression ‘brutto ma buono’ – ugly but good – and it describes the sort of cooking I’m interested in. Not fancy fine dining with smears on the plates or with micro herbs tweezered onto artfully arranged cubes of veal from a sous vide machine, but hearty dishes with great ingredients, full of flavour, and looking like something your granny might make. Brutto also refers to the interior design which will have elements of texture and tone that some might think of as ugly, but will also be deceptively lush, extremely comfortable and with beautiful lighting. As a bonus, you can see the Barbican Centre from just outside the restaurant – a towering example of glorious Brutalist architecture.
You’ve said that, whilst not slavish to regionality, there will be a decidedly Tuscan flavour to the menu. What do you think it is about that region’s cuisine that makes it so abidingly popular?
Tuscan cooking, just like the food in Italy’s other nineteen regions, is about locality and seasonality. So many big flavours and bold dishes – lots of meat, obviously (and I love the fact that, for the time being, Smithfield Meat Market is a literal stone’s throw from Brutto), deeply tasty pasta dishes with home-made pici, game, wild boar, lots of tomatoes and courgettes in the summer, puntarelle with anchovies, ribollita, Panzanella, pinzimonio, peposo... I love everything about Tuscan cuisine, apart from the bread. It’s the worst bread in Italy. No salt! It’s like chewing wet sawdust. We’ve got to something about the bread!
You’ve lived in Venice. Polpo, your original restaurant concept, was based on its chicchetti-serving bacari, and you’ve written two cookbooks based on the Venetian food that’s long inspired you. What then prompted your shift in focus southward?
Venice is my first love, and I have to be honest, I feel like I’m being slightly disloyal to her with Brutto, but I’ve grown up a bit since I founded Polpo in 2009. In those days I wanted a fast-paced, noisy, drinking environment, a bacaro – lots of cicchetti, fritto misto and spritzes – with a party vibe rather than a restauranty one. That’s all changed. The two restaurants I thought of most when creating Brutto were Cammillo and Trattoria Sabatino, both in Florence, and they are very busy and bustling, but they are also sophisticated in their own way. I wanted a clear distance between Polpo and Brutto and Florence was the perfect inspiration.
What is it, do you think, about Italian food that makes it the best in the world?
Italian cooking is so simple. You use excellent ingredients and you don’t have to do very much to them. It’s fresh, vibrant, colourful, healthy and full of vitality and flavour. And pizza!
And what lessons about food – and life – have you learned from living in Italy?
There is a genuine food culture in every one of Italy’s twenty regions and we just don’t have that in the UK. One of the reasons is we don’t have food markets like every city, town and village in Italy does. We buy our ingredients wrapped in plastic from supermarkets. But in Italy, shopping is a daily activity. The greatest lesson living in Italy has taught me is that good Italian cooking is all about good shopping!
What are the challenges of opening a new restaurant while the world deals with the aftermath of a pandemic?
Will it be a success? Will people come back into central London to work? Will there be a three-day week in the city with people working from home for the other two days? It keeps me up at night worrying about it.
Some restaurateurs have alluded to difficulty with building teams in the wake of both Covid and Brexit. How will you navigate that?
It’s very tough indeed. I’m planning to close the restaurant on Sundays and Mondays initially so that everyone gets two days off. But we will be working very hard. I have my GM, my head chef, my restaurant manager and me. I’ll be there, cutting bread, tossing salads, pouring wine, polishing the glasses, making coffee, typing the menu, changing the lightbulbs...
Now that restaurants are open again, how do you think our dining habits have changed? And do you think that there are any legacies of the past year that can be harnessed to positively impact hospitality?
I hope that the change we have had to live with because of Covid – takeaways and home deliveries – is temporary. Restaurants restore (that’s the French verb at the root of the word) and that can’t be done with food in a Styrofoam box sitting on your sofa at home. I think social distancing, mask-wearing and cleaning your hands sixty times a day has been a burden that I can’t wait to see the back of.
And in the wider dining landscape, which restaurants have you been most delighted to get back to, both in London and beyond?
Going back to The Wolseley was a big deal. Full of people, laughter, conversation. I’m very much looking forward to going back to all my favourite places in Florence. I’m taking my head chef there in July for a research trip (or even a research tripe!)
When Brutto opens its doors, what will be the signature dish that everyone must try?
A lamprodotto sandwich (a spicy tripe Florentine legend). Panzanella (tomato and bread salad, another Tuscan classic). And if you order the massive T-bone steak – bistecca alla Fiorentina – you get me at your table serving the delicious house salad of romaine lettuce, cucumber and tarragon dressing.
By Nancy Alsop
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