Russell Norman is baffled. Last week the restaurateur had social media in a full, back-slapping raptures last week when he confirmed a leak: yes, it’s true, there’s a new place on the way, and it’s called Trattoria Brutto.
“The reaction’s been great, lovely, really encouraging. But it’s about nine months since I announced my departure from Polpo and people are talking about Brutto as my comeback…” he pauses, a furrow of confusion between brows. “I guess I didn’t feel like I was gone. It wasn’t like I went away by myself; everyone went away, the whole world went away.”
True, the Norman news cycle hasn’t been quiet for long, but it’s felt a while since he was really on top. While the Venetian-inspired Polpo and its small plates, sharing platters and strict no reservations policy chalked up the rules for practically every new opening in the first half of the 2010s – Norman is also probably why everyone swore their favourite drink was a Negroni for a while – in the last few years the group has unravelled, seeing the group shrink, both in size (two are left; they opened 17, including spin-offs) and sway.
Ironically for a restaurant that opened in 2009 off the back of the crash, much of it was down to a catastrophic letdown by a group of venture capitalists – “They pulled the rug from under our feet on Christmas Eve 2017… There we were, a scruffy, boutique restaurant group set up by two mates from Sunderland Polytechnic suddenly left with a huge corporate structure, still committed to sites we now couldn’t afford” – but Norman readily admits things had long not been what they were. “When we opened in 2009 in Soho, we had a cherished and loved standalone. Like with Tinkerbell when her light fades, I felt that the original idea of Polpo has always been slightly tarnished by subsequent Polpos.”
And so, he says, he’d been ready to go for a while, though he rubbishes the speculated acrimony surrounding the split, mentioning that he and co-founder Richard Beatty still speak on a “twice, thrice-weekly basis”, and are in talks to possibly open a new Spuntino – one of those spin-offs – abroad. Though he’d originally been expecting a six-figure payout on saying so long and thanks for all the cicchetti – “I’d expected to get a little bit for my efforts,” he deadpans – the pandemic was the problem, not people: “We were on a brink of a financial agreement in February and then in March, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
After that, he squirreled himself away at his farmhouse in Kent; at first to get over Covid (“I was ill for 10 days”) and then to work on a couple of books, one on cooking, one on Venetian lagoons. “Writing is a very solitary occupation, and doing it in lockdown has been hard. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve struggled over the last year, it’s been a tough time.”
Planning Brutto, he says, was what kept him happily busy, even if he admits to waking up “every night at 3am, wondering: ‘who’ll be my chef? Who’s going to run it?’” And it’s no small feat: the new place will open on August 10 seating 80 across the dining room, with a bar for another 12 or, when the socially-distanced metre disappears, 30 standing. Another “eight to ten will go outside, which I suspect will be crucial in our post-Covid world.” These will benefit from no through traffic, with Brutto sat on a cul-de-sac where the Hix Oyster & Chop House used to be, next to Smithfield market (“I say it isn’t on the main drag central London location, it’s sort of like off off-Broadway”).
Writing is a very solitary occupation, and doing it in lockdown has been hard. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve struggled over the last year
The Mark Hix history was a good omen, he says: “I love Hixxy, we go back a long way. He’s the first person I want to call about this.” Later, he’ll tell me he has and Hix can’t wait to see what he’s done with the place. Of which, Norman says of the building, “the bones are good, there’s no need to mess around with the skeleton. Of course at the moment, it’s a little bit butcher shop, fishmonger, lots of white tiles, bright lights, but…”
Hix has more than a faint connection to Brutto, too, having with Norman in Florence in late 2019 on a jolly that ended up mattering more than either man realised at the time. “We were over there with a few other restaurant chums – Jeremy King, Bill Knott, Valentine Warner – organised by my friend Oliver Rampley. He said, why don’t you come over, we can just hang out, go to the market, have some nice wine, try a few restaurants. He took us to places like Cammillo, Sabatino. These aren’t fancy pants, Michelin places, these are family-run places with an old man in the kitchen cooking dishes he’s done for three or four decades, and it was then I thought: ‘I love places like this, why aren’t there places like this in London?’ And then I thought: ‘Is it the sort of place I’d like to go to in London?’ Yes. ‘Is it the sort of place other people might like to go to?’ Well I hope so, I think so. And: ‘Is this the sort of place I think I could pull off?’ Well: yeah, I do.”
Is family-run important? “Yes,” he says, “I’m trying to persuade my son Ollie to help out. He did at Polpo, 12 years ago. Will he now? I’m not sure. He’s playing hard to get.”
It’s Florence and its surrounding areas – Norman pinpoints Sovicille near Sienna – that will lend Brutto what he calls “its Tuscan accent.” It doesn’t get any more specific than that: “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel in any respects. You know when you hear chefs talk about ‘a traditional recipe with my own twist’? I don’t want any twists. I want as few twists as possible. I feel more confident about my food knowledge than ever before.
“I want this to be traditional and authentic, the dishes to be familiar, comforting. But a slavish adherence to regionality isn’t necessary sometimes. You can have a general Tuscan, Florentine menu with a few favourite dishes thrown in from other regions.”
What fate for Norman’s signature, the small plate? Will they return? “No no no! Definitely not. That’s a Venetian thing; the sort of restaurant Brutto is based on follows the traditional Italian model of antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci. I’ll be playing around slightly with that format but there’ll be pasta dishes, there’ll be big main plates, big Florentine steaks.” Does this mean Polpo’s reasonableness has disappeared to? “I want it to be really accessible. I hope you can get out of here for under £40 a head - full meal, wine, everything.”
Later he details the menu; the stew ribollita, pappardelle with wild boar, veal chops. He has hearty enthusiasm for Tuscany’s love of tripe, putting two of the regions most famous dishes on, both trippa alla Fiorentina and lampredotto, a type of sandwich. In the bar to the side, it will be ceramic jugs of Sangiovese and freshly sliced bread topped with butter and Cantabrian anchovies.
“I always go back to my ideal chef, and my ideal chef is the 95-year-old Italian granny,” he says of his menu, and the food ties into the name. Brutto is lifted from an Italian expression, “brutto ma buono”; ugly but good. “I’m not for a moment suggesting that my food is going to be ugly, but there’s a great – and completely understandable – obsession with what’s on the plate. For me, not being a chef and coming from a hospitality background, I actually think that it’s everything else that’s perhaps more important in a restaurant.”
Comfort matters, then, even if conviviality means more. Norman himself will be in the restaurant daily: “I’ll be the chap on the door as you walk in,” he says, adding that he’ll cheerily don an apron and help out, if help is needed. He’s also excited to mixing up salads himself, having perfected his salad game during lockdown. In typical Norman style, he’s gone deep on the details: he mentions working out a deal with E.Dehillerin, the Parisian cookware shop, to supply Brutto its own, custom-stamped salad tongs. “I sort of have this fantasy of bringing back the tradition that you used to see frequently at Italian hotels, of salads being made at the side of the table.”
Until August, most of his time will be spent designing the restaurant, menu and defining the details. “It’s not because I’m a control freak – although my wife might disagree – it’s just because I enjoy it. The first person I have to satisfy is me and the only way I can do that, I suppose, is if I have a handle on everything.”
He’s presently occupied by making Brutto feel like two different restaurants at lunch and supper, taking inspiration from Dalla Marisa in his beloved Venice, which he likens to a greasy spoon. Before the allure of an evening, the plan is for things to be very casual during the day: “It would please me more than anything to see all the construction workers for the new development in Smithfield eschewing the caff for a big slab of wonderful lasagne and a delightful spring salad here.”
I always go back to my ideal chef, and my ideal chef is the 95-year-old Italian granny
Norman is soon riffing on the joy a restaurant running at full tilt gives him: “When you’ve got customers in the place, when the music is sort of cool and the lights have come down low, and the places filling up and there’s a buzz, it’s sort of difficult to describe, but it’s almost tangible and you just sort of start to feel ‘wow, it’s happening’. It’s like someone’s plugged into the mains.”
He’s more excited than I’ve seen him in a long time. “You know, so many people that I’ve spoken to have said: ‘Oh my god, it’s like a light has been switched on. You’re so much more like you’re old self.’”
Is he scared at all, I wonder? He mentions the 3am sweats again, but it doesn’t seem so. The venture capitalist cock-up seems to have hardened him somewhat, and he already knows what it’s like to open after a crisis. Besides, this time he has the opportunity to go it alone. “Investors? A good question. And the reason it’s a good question is because I haven’t decided. The great privilege I have with Brutto is that I could do it on my own if I wanted to. That’s not to say that, you know, I wouldn’t hurt quite a bit if it didn’t succeed, I certainly would. But investment at the moment isn’t just about the money. It’s also about the person that comes with it.”
What if Brutto was to grow, like Polpo did? He dismisses the idea. “I haven’t allowed myself the luxury of that reverie or possibility or thought. I’d say it’s essential that Brutto survives on its own as a standalone. And the thing is, everything I’ve just said about family-run restaurants would be meaningless if I were to answer that question any other way. The other thing is, I’m taking a 15-year lease on the site which is a long time, because it takes me to 70 by the time it finishes.” There’s a pause. “But... if it succeeds in the meantime and there’s the possibility of a second, well then maybe…” Another pause, a shake of the head. “But I’ve already had my fingers burnt with multiple sites before.”
What has always appealed to me about restaurants is making people feel better about themselves and the world
Norman was once a wunderkind of sorts, hailed as “London’s coolest restaurateur” and some quarters there were whispers he was the man who saved restaurants after the financial crash. The shine on that reputation dimmed as Polpo’s light did. I suspect Norrman knows it. “I feel that my contribution to the restaurant firmament over the last 12 years – well, it started in a way that I was very happy with, but there was a period where I was less attached to it and I think I gave less of a good account of myself and of what I wanted to do.
“So the thing that excites me about Brutto is that it’s a chance to reset the record, go back to basics and do what has always appealed to me about restaurants, which is making people feel better about themselves and the world when they leave than they did when they arrive. ‘Restaurant’ comes from the French to restore. So as restaurateurs, we restore people to a status or a level that they need to be restored to.”
There’s a poetic justice to that, I say. Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.