Polpo Cookbook

Photo by Evie Saffron-Strands

I received Polpo as a gift. When I first held it in my hands, I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I thought it was an artbook about, I don’t know, octopuses or something. The cover is a pale sand-colored hardboard with gold embossing. The spine is naked to reveal the smyth sewn pages. It appears to be a hybrid of manufactured and hand made. The overall result is an object lovely on its own. The surprising thing was it wasn’t an artbook, it was a cookbook. But a cookbook this beautiful, well how good could it really be?

Before receiving this book, I had never heard of chef Russell Norman nor his restaurant called Polpo. And while this book is subtitled A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts), the actual restaurant isn’t in Venice at all, it’s in London. The introduction takes the reader through Norman’s process of deciding to open a Venetian restaurant. It becomes a little travel porn-y as we accompany Norman from one little restaurant to another tiny wine bar. Sometimes this kind of thing bothers me, but the general good-naturedness of the text makes it a pleasure. As you page through, the photographs of Venice are as enticing and illustrative as any travel book, but the subject is always ultimately the same, fine quality, regional food.

Venetian food is not something I am familiar with, but if Polpo is indeed accurate, I would describe it as simple, fresh Italian, with few ingredients, and often a seafood component. Despite its fancy exterior, the food within this book is quite simple. I’ve made many recipes from it. Every one turned out spectacular and definitely more than the sum of its parts. Much of the food is small plate, and if we are to believe the chef, what constitutes bar food in Venice. I made the “Bresaola, Rocket and Parmesan Wrap” for dinner one night. I served it with a salad and a bottle of wine. It was a huge hit and took about ten minutes. Seriously, it was impressive. Tonight I am making as a side dish, “Grilled Fennel and White Anchovy Skewers.”

Polpo is successful on three fronts. First, it is an excellent introduction to Venetian cuisine. Honestly, I didn’t know. Secondly, this is a well-written, well-tested cookbook. So far, everything I have made is just as tasty as the photo implies. And the photos are astounding. Check them out on Jenny Zarin’s website. She changes the meaning of food photography. Lastly, while this clearly falls into the aspirational cookbook genre, it is successful in this, leading me to both make the recipes in book and to lie dreamily on the sofa dreaming about a trip to Venice.

Polpo: A Venetian Cook Book (of Sorts)

Russell Norman

Bloomsbury, 2012

$50

Terri Griffith

Terri Griffith has published fiction and criticism in Art21, Bloom, Suspect Thoughts, and BUST, as well as in the anthologies Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Seal Press, 2003), Are We Feeling Better Yet? (Penultimate Press, 2008), and Art from Art (Modernist Press, 2011). Since 2006, she has been a literary and culture blogger for Bad at Sports. Griffith is the author of the novel So Much Better (Green Lantern Press, 2009) and the co-editor of The Essential New Art Examiner (Northern Illinois University Press, 2012). She teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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