Eternally Popolare

Circolo Popolare is not new.  It opened in 2019, the second restaurant in London of French restaurant group Big Mamma, after the incredible Gloria in Shoreditch.  We first visited Circolo Popolare in early 2020, which was as fast as I was able to secure a reservation. 

As it turned out, that visit – a wonderful lunch with Mum and her fella Don – a meal of cured meats, deep, rick lasagne, fluffy stone-baked pizzas, and a ton of booze and tiramisu, was the last meal out we enjoyed in the U.K. before Covid shut everything down.  A few months later, when everything briefly re-opened for the summer, we celebrated with a trip to Gloria. We’re predictable, to say the least.

This week, we celebrated something equally momentous than the first ‘end’ of a painfully long pandemic:  the long-awaited opening of the Elizabeth Line.  In honour of this occasion, we visited Circolo Popolare, which, thanks to this £18billion purple wiggly line, connects our apartment to its locale, Fitzrovia in thirty-two minutes, as opposed to the hour or so it took a week ago. The Lizzie Line means that I can get carry-out from Canary Wharf as well now, which is great news for my diet.

Whereas Gloria will always win out in the Battle of the Big Mammas (it’s ‘our’ restaurant, and has a certain je ne sais quoi), Circolo Popolare is equally wonderous.  I love it for its jaw-dropping interior, backed up with a maximalist, batshit-crazy menu, with cocktails designed to shock and awe (one such example is the ‘Basic Bitch’, served in a clay goblet resembling a well-endowed woman, and garnished with blue candyfloss), and food which has been made to be enjoyed, shared and, sadly, Instagrammed.  On our last visit, we enjoyed an oversized Philly Cheesesteak sandwich – suggested for two, served for four – with the waiter pouring a cheese fondue all over it while grinning into my phone camera.  We started off that meal with truffle churros.  Delectable abominations of comfort food aside, the menu is gloriously Italian through and through.

In case you’re wondering, the food tastes as good as it is looks.  Big Mamma’s commitment to the very best Italian produce is remarkable.  Never have I tastiest Prosciutto so good, or Stracciatella so smokey.  Their oxtail ragù is so rich the government should sanction it, and the £five grappa we ordered to help us digest the chaos is one of the tastiest (and cheapest) we have tried (and we’ve tried a lot of grappa).

Like everyone, we visited Circolo this week hoping to be sat in the main dining room, under twenty-thousand bottles of wine and liquor shelved on every wall, maybe in one of their whitewashed stone booths, bums comforted by a colourful cushion with a Sicilian pattern.  The room is never less than full, and buzzes to the tune of happy diners and the comings and goings of a merry, well-trained team (who wear equally great shirts).  As you eat, you tap your feet to Italo-disco and kitsch artists of the epoch, such as Gianna Nannini.  This is a very extra experience. 

For our lunch today though, we were ushered into the second room at the back, a room no-less indulgent or full, with the service bar stretching along one wall, bottles stacked high.  The open kitchen is alive along another, and the terrace (closed today) along a third.  We order cocktails.  A ‘You’re Mint Spritz’ (gin, mint, raspberry, and prosecco) for her, and an ‘Empire State Sour’ (bourbon, Amaro Averna, rosemary, and Cannonau wine cloud) for me.

We order too much food.  This is too easy for us, and even easier to do here.  Grissini with prosciutto and mozzarella, the smoked Stracciatella, and carpaccio to start.  The European chooses mafaldine with that illegally good slow-cooked oxtail ragù to follow (‘Ragù, Set, Go’), and I have the ‘Nothing But The Truffle’, a pizza with, um, truffle. It’s all wonderful, and we’re full after the starters; partly due to the carpaccio, which is served on a platter the size of a boogieboard, before the waiter splits and rolls it into two vile-looking but extremely tasty balls of raw beef, rocket, and twenty-two-year-old aged Parmigiano-Reggiano. 

Oh yes, this is another thing I love about Big Mamma.  The still serve food table-side.  Whether it’s this incredible carpaccio, the ‘Gran Carbonara’, mixed in a round of pecorino, or their tiramisu, scooped from a dish to the bowl you hold in your hands like Oliver Twist, there is plenty of table-side theatre designed to get the tongues wagging and the cameras clicking.  Tables around us gasped in awe when our carpaccio arrived.  I gasped din awe when the table next to us ordered ‘The Incomparable Lemon Pie’, complete with it’s 5.9-inch layer of meringue (their measurements, not ours). All the food is beyond reproach.  You must taste it to believe it.  This, and the surroundings, make Circolo Popolare a feast for all the senses. 

So, let me close by coming full circle, one of the few things the Elizabeth Line cannot do.  Circolo Popolare is only a few years old but shaping up to be a future classic in London’s restaurant scene.  “Circolo, may you never change”, I mumbled, as I chowed down on my heavenly raw ball of carpaccio.

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