Three weeks ago, a few dozen of us gathered at Brutto in London’s Clerkenwell. It’s a beautiful reimagining of a Florentine trattoria, even if the name translates literally as “ugly”. We were served ice-cold negronis, which even I drank, and tumblers of something white, sparkling and primitive. The lamps were turned off, so that the only illumination came courtesy of the guttering candlelight. Then the eight-minute version of Prince’s Purple Rain, full of screaming guitars and broken edges, was played out at top volume across the room. We stood in our own shadowed pools of silence, lost in thought, thinking about Russell Norman: the man who created this and so many other restaurants, and who died far too young last November. As it was explained to us by Monique Sierra, Brutto’s general manager, the playing of Purple Rain cranked up loud, to a crammed late-night Brutto dining room plunged into darkness, was one of Russell’s rituals. It was, she said, Brutto in its pomp, even if some of the diners found it utterly baffling.
A couple of days later, I sat down for lunch in Zucco, a small plates Italian restaurant in Meanwood, just to the north of Leeds city centre, and started thinking about the brilliance of Russell Norman all over again. Big picture windows aside, this place was heavily smeared with his fat thumb prints. Above us was a bronze-coloured, pressed-tin ceiling exactly like the one with which he opened the original Polpo in Soho. In front of us was the paper menu as place mat, waiting to get grease stained and sauce splattered. There were dangling filament lightbulbs, white subway tiles and a counter laid for dining. The cocktail list began with the offer of a negroni or Aperol spritz. Most of all there was a list of well-priced dishes, roaming from the thigh to the heel of Italy’s boot, all designed for sharing. What’s more, the table was too small for the many dishes we were encouraged to order. So authentically, at times infuriatingly, Polpo. It struck me that Zucco could not have existed, could not have looked like this, without Polpo first having been born.
This turned out literally to be so. Zucco was opened a decade ago by Rosario Leggiero, who worked alongside Russell and his business partner, Richard Beatty, on the original Polpo before returning to Leeds to open this, his own place. Polpo had been a proof of concept. It claimed to be democratising the restaurant experience and by cramming big numbers into small spaces, created a clamour many of us wanted to be a part of. Then there was the small plates thing. Well, of course, you’re bored of small plates. You’re so over them. Aren’t we all so over them? Bring on the main courses and the starters. Give us substance.
But then here I am, confronted by a detailed list of crostini and pizzette and vegetable dishes featuring happy words like zucchini and burrata, with the knowledge that I don’t have to commit, but can have a little of a lot and it makes a greedy argument for itself all over again. We have their crisp, breadcrumbed arancini, puffing hot gusts of cheesy loveliness at us as we bite in, and a rustling plate of greaseless fritto misto, flecked with green herbs. It’s a lucky dip of white fish, squid, prawns and fresh anchovies, and is a sweet reminder of my first time at the original Polpo in 2009, feeling like I was in on the start of something Russell Norman knew we wanted, even if we didn’t. Back then, the fritto misto was £6.60 and quite astonishing at that price; now it is £12.90. Given everything that has gone on in between, a near doubling in price feels about right.
There is something else about Zucco that forces from me deep wells of moist emotion, like bathwater squeezed from a sponge. The kitchen is overseen by Rosario’s brother Michael who, for many years, cooked at Salvo’s in Headingly. I was a student in Leeds in the 80s and by then it was already established as the smart Italian place; the one you went to if you somehow felt flush or had saved up enough to take someone there in an attempt to impress them with your preternatural sophistication. My wife even worked as a waitress at Salvo’s in her student days, albeit just for one day. As she put it: “I just wasn’t willing to put up with it. All that running around and being ignored.”
The thing is, amid the 21st-century Polpo reference points, there is also more than a touch of the 20th-century Salvo’s about the food here. We have a stack of carta di musica, those golden, crinkled sheets of cracker, interleaved with sweetly pickled shredded vegetables, chargrilled slices of aubergine and torn basil leaves, dribbled with the best grassy olive oil. There’s an equally crisp-crusted small pizza, or pizzette, layered with goat’s cheese, grilled courgette and a big old bash of chilli. A generous nest of white and green tagliatelle, is knotted around sautéed mushrooms and then dressed liberally with truffle oil as if more is always bound to be more. Zucchini fritti, in thin slices, are as crisp and rustling as the fritto misto. That’s the point; all the essentials are attended to. A white risotto topped with pebbles of long-braised, heavily sauced ox cheek, is quite simply perfect.
The dessert list is long. It is far too long for everything on it to have been made on site, which our waiter quickly agrees is the case. We have two of the three things that have been made here: a squidgy-centred brownie, ringed by dribbles of chocolate sauce and chopped berries, and a white chocolate and strawberry cheesecake piled into a glass tumbler. They are desserts for those craving a hit of sugar over subtlety.
I like to pretend that everything I do is calculated, but it isn’t, not always. It was pure coincidence that I had lunch at Zucco in the same week as I attended the lovely memorial event for Russell Norman. But as I sipped my dark-roast espresso and looked about the room, I concluded it was exactly the right place to be. I doubt very much the family who run Zucco would ever dream of turning off the lights and blasting Prince’s Purple Rain at their customers. They’re far too polite for that. But in so many other ways, it represents a vital part of Russell’s legacy, and it’s a joy to see. Here’s to you, old friend.
The chef Regis Crepy, who launched the venerable Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmunds before selling up and focusing on new businesses in Cambridge, has returned to the Suffolk town. In partnership with restaurateur Lamen Reddy he has opened Blue Fig on Abbeygate Street. The chef is Wayne Gray who has put together a menu of small plates inspired by the cooking of the Mediterranean, including burrata with caramelised shallots and crispy chilli, cod with white beans and chorizo, and a Basque cheesecake (bluefigrestaurants.com).
The Mexican-themed chain Boojum, which has 15 branches, mostly located in Dublin and Belfast, is opening its first site in England. It will be on Merrion Street in Leeds, alongside a production kitchen, which will eventually service a planned slate of up to 25 further openings from Nottingham and Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester (boojummex.com).
And news of two closures. In Anstruther, Fife, chef-patron Billy Boyter has announced the sale after a decade of the Cellar. ‘My family and I have decided it’s the right time for us,’ he said. Meanwhile in London, chef Gregory Marchand was rather less phlegmatic when announcing the closure of Frenchie in Covent Garden. ‘The last year operating in London has been increasingly challenging,’ he said on Instagram. ‘And although I wish we could continue, it is time to close our doors and focus on our restaurants in France.’
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on X @jayrayner1