To see Venice at its best visit in Winter, between the middle of October and before the claustrophobic squalor of Carnevale in February. The days are short, and you have to plan carefully to catch the Titians or Raphaels or Carpaccios in the churches, often closed for restauro, and in which the light is appalling at the best of times. But the compensatory magic of dusk falling to meet the fog rising off the lagoon, the poetic, mystical wilderness of Torcello and the lapping lull of the canals as you fall asleep make up for any inconveniences of winter opening hours, or the occasional acqua alta, and the weather is mostly kind enough to let you enjoy the real beauty of Venice, which lies not in its museums or churches but in walking and walking and walking, deliberately allowing yourself to be lost in its unnavigable calle and canale.
I admit to a preoccupation with Venice, bordering on obsession. Before Trefusis Minor and his sister were born, I would visit a great friend of mine there at least once a year. But Venice is hopeless with small children - at least, the Venice I enjoy - and it's hard to negotiate a Bunbury there without them. So I dream and I read anything from Peter Ackroyd to Donna Leon and sometimes the longing for the place gets so bad that even a whiff of bad drains is enough to transport me back to a favourite square in Cannareggio, bordered by narrow washing-line festooned alleyways.
But now I've found something to alleviate all of this hopeless yearning, somewhere that evokes Venice so beautifully it's a source of deep consolation. What's more, it's so close I walk past it every day on my way to work. Polpo, on Soho's Beak Street, is modelled on a Venetian bacaro - the kind of place tourists leave to the real Venetians, where people go after their passagiata for a Spritz or an ombra and a plate of cichetti, a kind of Venetian tapas. Polpo is more than a bacaro really - I assume one can pop in after work and sit at the terribly inviting zinc-topped bar for a glass of one of their carefully sourced wines (mostly from the north of Italy, with a proper emphasis on the Veneto) and a plate full of delicious bits and pieces - but Polpo is more about the current vogue for restaurants which serve small plates of things to share at lunch and at dinner.
The team behind Polpo have an impeccable pedigree: it's the first independent venture for Russell Norman, previously Operations Director for Caprice Holdings and its head chef is Tom Oldroyd, previously at Bocca di Lupo, who has worked closely with Russell to create a menu of simple and authentic small plates and cicheti. Classics like Salt Cod, Bigoli, Polpette and Cuttlefish in its ink sit alongside some of Tom’s own dishes, like Roast Belly of Pork with Radicchio and Hazelnut Salad, and Mackerel tartare with cucumber, horseradish & carta di musica.
Curiously, unlike anywhere else in Italy, it's possible to eat abominably badly in Venice and pay handsomely for the privilege: there's a very clear delineation between restaurants designated for tourists and those beloved of locals. If you're visiting, avoid anything within striking distance of San Marco, or the Rialto, and move further afield to Canareggio where there are some gems near the Strada Nova as well as some good, if unprepossessing looking restaurants on the Fondamenta Misericorda. Or to the area around Campo S.Barnaba and the Frari. But in the Venetian enclave that is Polpo Soho, you need have no such fears. Not only is Polpo exceptional value for the quality, it's somewhere that will charm locals and incomers alike. Its reservations policy is refreshing too - the bar and around half of the tables are available for those who lead more spontaneous lives, but one can also book in advance to avoid the ghastliness of arranging to meet a group of friends and arriving to find there's no room at the bacaro.
41 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SB
Telephone: 020 7734 4479