As another DFL (that means down-from-London, mind) makes its way to the West Country and puts its stamp on Whiteladies Road, Charlotte Gallagher delivers her verdict
We have to confess, these days – with the city a mine of exotic, unusual fare from around the globe – the once go-to classic Italian restaurant is less and less our first choice for dinner à deux. And we’re really not sure why, because we could easily eat our own body weight in cheese-laden pizza or wholesome, traditional pasta dishes any day of the week – perhaps it just feels a little unimaginative, a bit obvious, now that we’re so spoilt for interesting new foodie concepts to test out in our scarce, precious free time. But recently the ante has been upped – and unimaginative or obvious this place is not.
Having joined the growing band of London-born establishments that have seen Bristol for the super-happening place that it is, the acclaimed Polpo stuck its victory flag into the ground at 50 Whiteladies Road this summer. It’s an Italian modelled on the Venetian bàcaro – a ‘humble restaurant serving simple food and young Italian wines in a setting that reflects the gloriously faded elegance of Venice, and the charms of its backstreet wine bars,’ as they put it, and it does.
The interior is all exposed brick and battered ivory tiles, with charmful low-hanging lamps draped in lacey cloth serviettes, and a wall of those young wines we mentioned, behind the bar. I’m compelled towards the Campari (it’s compulsory, right?) as we claim a couple of stools to perch on, especially with my guest S going straight for the Aperol spritz, but am won over by the special – Citrus Sour with gin, amarena cherry syrup, lemon juice, orange bitters and egg white. It’s bubbly and baby pink, with a fat, saccharine cherry speared by a cocktail stick, and it’s a beaut.
“I can’t get enough of the gutsy fried gnocchi salad with flavoursome rainbow chard pesto and young pecorino…”
At the dinner table – now armed with a pokey negroni and a Devereaux comprising Four Roses bourbon, elderflower, lemon juice, mint and prosecco, plus skewers of piping-hot fried and stuffed olives coated in a tasty crumb – fritto misto jostles for our attention alongside octopus carpaccio and braised scallops on the fish section of the menu. From here we pick out the chilli and garlic prawns, pairing them with another small plate of chickpea, spinach and ricotta ‘meatballs’ to share.
S is impressed with this creative veggie version of the Italian favourite – which we could compare to falafel in some ways, though it’s less dry and dense, to our minds. As we watch merrily oversubscribed staff eagerly arranging an alfresco table for the short queue of eager diners forming outside, we make a mental note to try more of the meatball section next time we visit – the lamb and pistachio or spicy pork and fennel variety maybe. Sound good, hey?
We decide to add one of Polpo’s pizzette – yep, a miniature pizza, as the name suggests – to the order too, as our waitress thinks that’ll make for just the right amount of dishes between us, and we are, of course, confident we can handle them all as well. The spinach, parmesan and soft egg type that we try is wafer-thin and made minus tomato sauce – which S is initially sceptical about, but it’s equally if not more delicious than it would be with the red stuff.
I can’t get enough of the gutsy fried gnocchi salad with flavoursome rainbow chard pesto and young pecorino, which arrives slightly after – as we’re eyeing up the refreshing-looking zucchini, parmesan and basil salad on a nearby table. Having had her fill, S eschews the remaining soft gnocchi dumplings in a ladylike manner while I continue putting them away like nobody’s business – which is all very well (you know what’s coming…) until dessert arrives.
It’s a finale featuring flourless orange and hazelnut cake with glistening candied strips of orange peel piled on top – moist and moreish beside a citrussy-sweet dollop of dreamy mascarpone. It also, along with our fresh strawberry and basil panna cotta, foils my attempt to finish every morsel of this meal, but despite our defeat, we still leave hankering after the ricotta doughnuts with cinnamon sugar, the Aperol sorbet and the chocolate salami. Yes, all at once. The heart (stomach) wants what the heart (stomach) wants…
The city has welcomed a couple of excellent-looking Italian diners that have piqued our interest lately, and this one has certainly given us a renewed sense of excitement about the crowd-pleasing continental fare. ‘Polpo’, we discovered, actually means ‘octopus’ in Italian, and like its namesake, we reckon this eatery’s really got legs, here in Bristol…