• Spuntino Review: Why I Love London

    by  •  • Featured, London, Reviews

    My intention was to review Polpo first as we were there on the weekend after visiting Ai Wei Wei’s Somerset House exhibit.

    And because in my head it makes sense to be vaguely chronological about these things.

    But we were seeing a show in Soho on Tuesday and we ended up at Spuntino beforehand so here we are. It’s too good not to get out there right away.

    For us as least, Chinatown is a more traditional pre-theatre destination. However, my last meeting of the day had finished early so I had an hour to kill before James arrived. Sputino was quiet at 5:30pm so I propped myself as their nickel top counter, ordered a negroni and spiced nuts then messed around on my phone for a bit.

    I love this place. I love the pants off it. Russell Norman is the undisputed king of restaurants at the moment -possibly in the world. (There are those guys in the US doing the Mexi-Japanese fusion thing but this is probably better.)

    Spuntino is in ‘proper’ Soho – it’s on perhaps the last street that can still be called that. On my walk up from Piccadilly Circus I was stared down by a shirtless crack head looking for a fight, had drunks break glasses all around me and an enormous Polish woman offered me a discount to get into a sex show. (It was 5:30pm. Maybe they have matinee performances?)

    If you’re familiar with Rupert Street you’ll know it’s not really all that long and yet all of this wackiness will happen to you too. The walk up to Sputino is like a rapey version of a Charlie Chaplin sketch.

    The surrounds are just seedy enough to give you a dodgy frisson. This, despite the fact you’re a few hundred feet from a major tourist destination and are as safe as houses. (Does that expression need updating for a post-2008 world?)

    Here’s something I’ve worked out.

    Eating alone is like that terrible Ben Affleck movie. No, the other one. No, the other, other one. Daredevil.

    Suddenly your senses are all heightened. You can hear everyone talking all around you -possibly for miles. And the conversation the extremely friendly bar attendant was having with the solo diner closest to me was one of those adorable, almost meta conversations the English have where they absolutely lay into the English.

    Anyway, he was saying that he gets very frustrated when people refer to Sputino (or the other two restaurants for that matter) as “Italian tapas”. Because it’s not. It’s cicchetti. (Which are Venetian snacks you eat in the early evening with a glass of wine. Much like… oh, never mind.) Except it’s only cicchetti if the food was invented in New York rather than Venice.

    And let me tell you that New York missed a trick by not doing so because it is soul-meltingly good. My heart races just thinking about the truffled egg toast or the fennel pizzetta. But what keeps bringing me back to Spuntino is the fact that -as a format- it really suits my own brand of crazy.

    I hate crowds enough to do my weekly grocery shop at dawn when the supermarket is empty, I like to get my drinking done while the sun is out so I’m still in bed at a reasonable hour and I can never predict when I am going to want to stop eating -not even half way through a meal.

    So Brooklyn-influenced Italian tapas cicchetti bars (bacari) open from 12 till 12 are just what the doctor ordered. If indeed you can find a doctor who will recommend daytime drinking and random quantities of rich food eaten really fast. (This is Rupert Street. It will take you ten minutes max to find that doctor. His name may even be Max. I’d try that large Polish lady first. She looks in the know.)

    The bar attendant continued.

    The English, you see, can’t get their head around a place you cannot book, can’t get their head around food that you don’t eat sitting down at a table that you have called ahead to stake out. And they don’t like sitting near strangers. (Goodness, they sound horrible!)

    James arrives at 6pm. Along with everyone else. And it looks like the attendant is correct. In groups of two or three they would stand at the door of the tiny venue, wait to make eye contact and say “two please” or “three please”.

    There are no tables at Spuntino. That much is obvious even from the doorway. There is the amazing zinc bar I was perched at or there is a bench in the back you can perch at.

    So the staff would gesture expansively at the one or two available stools until even they were gone and then advise people to mill about and pounce when something freed up. In the meantime they’d pour them a drink and everyone would go back to chatting.

    Potential diners would look confused, then shoot each other confirming glances. Some would melt away, others would take a tentative step inside -like a squirrel being coaxed to feed from your hand. If they took that first step -if they decided to squirrel- the staff would be on them right away, making suggestions, talking them through the menu.

    Consider it public service: helping all those poor horrible English people to be a bit more European or something, to loosen up a bit.

    Those fortunate recipients of this public service were in for a treat. Because the food really is that good.

    We had the truffled egg on toast (of course), the pulled pork slider, the lamb and pickled cucumber slider, the pizzetta, and the curly fries. All for £3 – £5. Everything was amazing. Proper amazing. I could have gone another round.

    In fact, if we didn’t have a show to get to we may well have. (I was also acutely aware that, because I had been waiting for James, I had been occupying one of the stools for well over an hour -this is bad bacari etiquette. Eat and run.)

    Like any Russell Norman restaurant, the house wines are extremely well chosen so you can cheerfully stick to them. Beers are Italian -James was particularly keen on the fact they chill their ales.

    As for cocktails, always, always start with a negroni. In fact, start every meal with a negroni.

    You’re insane if you’ve got this far through the review without texting some friends to meet you at Spuntino -just don’t try and call ahead for a reservation. They don’t even have a phone.

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