Review: Polpo by Russell Norman

Polpo by Russell Norman

Photographed by Jenny Zarins

Published by Bloomsbury, July 2012

Price £25.00

Polpo’s food, in its restaurants and in this book, is so stripped back as to be almost indecent. Eat at Polpo and you will be served Venetian-style cichèti, or small snacks and plates of food, with simple china, no linen and very little cutlery. Even the luxury that Londoners have come to expect of being able to book a table, has been sliced away in Russell Norman’s mania for simplicity. Polpo‘s first cookery book includes all the classic recipes that smitten customers love and expect: Anchovy & Chickpea Crostini; Fritto Misto; Panzanella.

Panzanella photographed by Jenny Zarins

Amongst the hundreds of cookery books in my collection, just about every style, category, method and region of food is covered. Or that’s what I thought. But with the arrival of Polpo, I realised that I’d been lacking something… a postmodern cookery book.

If you’ve been reading Eggs On The Roof for a while, you’ll know I have a weakness for the postmodern. Postmodernism plus food would, you’d think, be an absolute winner as far as I’m concerned. And you’d be right. But how does Polpo show off its postmodern status? The answer is, on its spine. Russell Norman has taken his passion for reduction to new postmodern heights and stripped away the book’s outer spine too, to reveal its deconstructed, stitched and glued interior.

Show-off postmodernism for its own sake is tedious. It wrecks its original intentions and becomes merely tedious posturing. But this is where Norman and his publishers have been so clever. The subversive act of stripping away the book’s spine makes this the very first cookery book I’ve ever owned that sits entirely flat on the table when it’s opened. And that makes it a joy to use.

Photographer: Jenny Zarins

The recipes are as spare and simple as the ideology behind them. Typically, as a former English teacher, Russell Norman turns to literature to encapsulate that ethos. “We have a rule that a dish is ready to be put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredients as possible. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.'”

I revelled in recipes with only three or four ingredients, in combinations that require no cooking, in fresh ingredients that seem to have gone on a blind date, introduced themselves to each other on the plate and found perfect harmony. This is simple cooking at its best: Grissini, Pickled Radicchio & Salami; Rocket & Walnut Pesto Crostini; Pizzetta Bianca; Prosciutto & Butternut Squash With Ricotta Salata.

Broad Bean, Mint & Ricotta Bruschette photographed by Jenny Zarins
Warm Octopus Salad photographed by Jenny Zarins

So is this book, are these recipes, too simple to merit all the fuss? Absolutely not. To borrow another phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as the fox tells Le Petit Prince, ‘It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.’ It’s the time that Russell Norman and head chef Tom Oldroyd have devoted to their passion for removing things that makes the removing of those things so important.



  1. I like the idea of the stripped down recipes that Polpo uses but omitting the spine of the book might shorten its life, despite enabling it to stay flat when open. Perhaps modern glues don’t crack like the old ones. Time and usage will tell. From the sound of it usage will be heavy.

    1. Thanks Jakey and yes, you’re right that this book will be heavily used. It’s full of delicious but effortless recipes.

  2. As you are probably aware, I am a fan of Giorgio Locatelli. He espouses taking things out (rather than putting a lot of things in) – this way you have to use the best ingredients. This is another book to put on your shelf with love. The last one you recommended like this is Jake Tilson’s fish book – an absolute pleasure to own. You won’t be surprised when I say that Polpo has just been put on my wish list. Lovely review.

    1. Like Jake Tilson’s book, Polpo has soul and purpose. I feel sure you’ll love it, Sally.

      1. I’m an absolute fan of Jake Tilson. It’s funny, I got introduced to his work, not by a foodie, by my typography tutor at central st martins where I do graphic design. I love the way he experiments, and you can just feel the soul of the book and his travels. If polpo is anything like that, I definitely need to start flipping through a copy.

      2. Have you seen Jake’s small book called 3 Found Fonts? If you love typography, which I do, you will adore it. You’ll find Polpo fascinating too and of course its Venetian roots tie in perfectly with Jake’s latest book which includes a section on Venice.

  3. Sounds like an utterly wonderful cookbook. I love the restaurants and can imagine the recipes are very true to those – one to add to the ever growing list!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting – always a pleasure to hear from you. It’s fascinating how different the character of one cookery book is from another. I’m pretty confident you will love this one.

  4. Hey, I got enticed by all your Superb recipes and here you get another feather in your hat ! I cant wait to try my hands on it. It is looking so good with all the lovely pictures and write up as well. I have been here after a while but enjoyed scrolling through your other wonderful posts as well. Have a wonderful week ahead, Enjoy. Thanks for sharing your recipes. Best Regards, Sonia !!!

    1. Thanks very much, Sonia – so glad to know that you’re enjoying Eggs On The Roof.

  5. Lovely to read your review, Charlie. It’s a beautiful book and whilst we didn’t publish it we are now part of the family that did! It is a joy in so many ways, but the spare design is something that has been so intelligently and aptly applied.

    1. I completely agree with you, Matt. It’s design with a real purpose in mind – I love it.

  6. Another wonderful review that makes me want to own this cookbook! The very very best meals I have ever eaten were spare – dishes cooked with the fewest ingredients but of the highest freshest quality and put together perfectly, so this book sings to me. What a beautiful book.

    1. I love the idea of a cookery book singing to you, Jamie. I’m pretty sure you would love this book.

  7. Once again I’m wooed by your reviews – too often I get bored half way through a review but you bring them to life. Love the blind-date image of the ingredients settling down to a blissful partnership.

    1. I’m thrilled if you think so, Kit – thank you so much. I always love reading comments from readers, especially new ones.

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