Every morning last autumn, as he took the short walk from Farringdon station in central London to his new restaurant, Russell Norman came face to face with a ghost. The pandemic had hit the hospitality sector hard, and this stretch of takeaway outfits and dine-in burger chains was no exception. A Byron, a Coco di Mama, an Itsu – all long gone, doors locked, interiors dark. And then, just before the final right turn, the one that really hurt, the words on its signage removed but the outline unmistakable: Polpo.
The Venetian-inspired restaurant, which took its name from the Italian for “octopus”, had been a breakout success for Norman in the early 2010s. With its small plates, no-reservations policy and stripped-down interiors, the original Soho site had been credited with reinventing casual dining after the Great Recession. But then, like so many brands that emerged during the same period, it started to expand: taking on investors, extending tentacles across the UK, and then collapsing in instalments from 2016 onwards. Most of its sites were forced to close in the context of a broader casual dining crunch, as the cost of running a restaurant rose and the number of customers fell. These days, just two Polpos survive, in Soho and in Chelsea, west London, under the management of Norman’s former business partner Richard Beatty. Norman’s own departure from the project was finalised in June 2020.
Now, after a hiatus, he was back. For years, Norman had wanted to open an old-fashioned trattoria, replicating the homely, family run restaurants of Italy for a central London audience. A 2017 trip to Tuscany had brought his vision into sharper focus. Many of the region’s most celebrated dishes are rooted in the tradition of cucina povera (“poor cooking”), which makes resourceful use of pasta, beans, bread and offal. The food is nourishing and full of flavour, but beige and unphotogenic. In recognition of this, the restaurant would be called Brutto – or, in English, Ugly.
Almost from the start, the name