Food: New York influence on Londoner’s Italian cooking

Russell Norman
Russell Norman

There is little doubt that restaurateur Russell Norman is in the right career.

A former head of drama at a girls’ school, for years he worked at restaurants on the weekend, before taking the leap in the late Nineties, eventually going on to set up the popular mini chain of Venetian-inspired Polpo eateries.

“I gave myself a talking to one day and realised I was kidding myself - if I enjoyed restaurants so much at the weekends, why wasn’t that my full-time job?” explains the cook who was born in London and lives with his wife and three children in the city.

“It’s different from how I imagined it. When you work for yourself, your attitude to work changes completely.

“We currently employ nearly 300 people and I feel a daily responsibility, not just for those 300 people but for their dependants, for their husbands and wives and children... but I absolutely enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t.”

Nearly 20 years on from resigning as a teacher, Norman is in his element, with a string of restaurants - including the New York-style Spuntino - and a new cookbook to his name.

Happy to chew the fat about food all day, he regularly “fills up notebooks” with menu inspiration, and jokes that for someone who cooks Italian food, his mastery of the language is limited to food vocabulary - rather than “asking for directions to the train station”.

Clearly he feeds this enthusiasm into his work, where he has been known to hold competitions in his Spuntino kitchen for finding the longest strings of cheese in their macaroni cheese dish from pan to mouth.

“I’m not the current holder,” laughs Norman, who indulged his love of stringy cheese on holiday to Tuscany where he had “strands of cheese that looked like telephone wires”.

Hearty meals like macaroni cheese form the basis of his new book Spuntino, which celebrates the comforting dishes they serve up on a daily basis.

“These aren’t refined flavours that we have on the menu at Spuntino,” he says.

“We’re not in the realms of delicate ingredients and subtle combination; this is comfort food, nursery food, pure and simple.

“It’s the sort of thing you want to eat when you have a hangover or when you’re really hungry. It’s food that’s about celebrating or enjoying.”

And while his Polpo restaurants resemble the “backstreet wine bars of Venice”, Spuntino is all about the Big Apple.

“I’m going to sound a bit naff here, but there’s a bit in Sex And The City, where Sarah Jessica Parker’s character talks about the additional character of the programme being the city of New York,” he laughs.

“It’s a rather cheesy way of summarising it, but New York does have its own energy. It’s one of those places that really makes you feel good to be alive.”

If you fancy a bite of the Big Apple, here’s a comforting dish from Spuntino...