★★★★ | Circolo Popolare, Central London
Circolo Popolare is one of the hottest newest restaurants in town, with people without a reservation queuing outside in the hopes of getting a table. If they ever get inside, they’ll be enveloped in a room full of warmth and colours so alive they’ll feel like they’ve stepped into a restaurant in the Mediterranean.
Walking into Circolo Popolare is a wow moment. Hundreds of liquor bottles line both sides of the walls in the main room – which is very vivid and bright. Tea lights and greenery hang from the ceiling, while past the kitchen towards the back there is another beautiful room to explore – with an olive tree in the centre. Circolo Popolare has to be one of the most beautiful restaurants in London. But how’s the food?
Me and my dining companion had a very hard time choosing what to eat, and while it’s not a huge menu, we just didn’t know what we fancied. The cocktails were an easy choice – we could’ve ordered several but stuck to just one each. The Lemoncello Spritz was absolutely divine. With just the right amount of Absolut vodka, a couple dashes of Limoncello Amalfi, Prosecco Cinzano, maracuja, and peach, with lemons aligned on the sides of a large wine glass – it was stunning and delicious, and I highly recommend it (£7). My friend had Look Me in The Eyes – a drink served in a cheeky novelty mug and held a blend of three rums, almond hibiscus syrup, Triple Sec, lime, and maracuja. It had a kick thanks to the rum but it also had a sweet fruity flavour (£9).
Of the 8 antipasti starters on the menu, we ordered two. We thoroughly enjoyed the Crudo Crocante – 3 small lettuce cups with Cornish sea bass, confit tomatoes, dehydrated olives, lemon, baby herbs. The menu states they are a must – and they are. Nice and chilled – with a delicious vinaigrette dressing sprinkled over – it was a nice combination of food in a dish that’s not too filling and a bargain at £7. We also tried the Pizza Fritta Montanara – a smallish dough bread stuffed with tomato sauce with Parmigiano sprinkled on top. Delicious and moist, and it complemented the Crudo. The Frittatina (Mac and cheese bites) looked interesting – but seemed too cheesy, The Sam Daniele Ham and the Magic Mushroom Bruschetta looked like other very good choices.
And choice is the keyword for the main course options. Pizza, pasta and hot skewers of meat or fish (Dalla Griglia) are there. The pizza selection is not super sexy – I opted for the Animal Lover pizza which happened to be cheeseless. It was moist and had a healthy topping of aubergines, mushrooms, red peppers, vegan pesto, and taggiasche olives, but there was nothing really special about it. My friend had the Straccetti di Vitello Dalla Griglia – one very large skewer loaded with veal, sweet potato and mushrooms served over nicely browned potatoes and grilled courgettes – at £17 it’s definitely worth its weight and was very good though the veal could’ve been cooked a bit more. My friend did not finish it which I took as a bad sign. Pasta choices on the menu include lots (perhaps too much) creamy and cheesy dishes, but I hear the Crab me by the Paccheri is the best one (Thick-cut home-made paccheri pasta with crab, red gurnard, mussels and tarragon – £20).
For dessert almost everyone seemed to be having the Circolo Sundae – a huge sundae with XXL gelato, cookie chunks, churros, brownies and home-made whipped cream – and it is large and comes adorned with a sparkler on top – it better with a £16 price tag!
I opted for something a bit more simple – the You Make Me Crumble – basically apple crumble – but it was served cold which I wasn’t expecting. Was is pre-made and had been scooped right out of the refrigerator? It was not worth £7. My friend had the Banoffee Pie which was a much better choice. The mascarpone whipped cream on top was luscious – a divine dessert at £8.
The dishes are served in beautifully coloured plates full of different patterns, while the staff are as nice as they can be, managing the crowds who are constant on the weekends, and some people come in just specifically to take pictures – though not many are able to sneak past the two (!!) check-in counters.
The menu is quite colourful as well, and special attention must be paid to the Big Boy French Toast on the breakfast menu. It sounds absolutely wonderful (fluffy brioche, raspberries and raspberry coulis with mascarpone whipped cream) and a steal at £9 – which I am very much looking forward to eating later in the year. The French Toast is also served on their brunch menu, along with their other breakfast items Eggs Alla Fiorentina and Ricotta Pancakes.
Circolo Popolare, which can be rightly described as a sunny Sicilian trattoria, is a lovely place to while away the time pretending you’re in sunny climes (not many windows in the restaurant help with this fantasy), but main dishes could be a bit more tasty and fulfilling.
Circolo is open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch with friends, and dinners under the starry ceiling.
Tim Baros writes film and theatre articles/ reviews for Pride Life and The American magazines and websites, as well as for Hereisthecity.com, Blu-RayDefinition.com and TheGayUK.com. He has also written for In Touch and TNT Magazines, SquareMile.com and LatinoLife.co.uk. He is a voting member for the UK Regional Critics Circle and the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA – of which he is the UK representative). In addition, he has produced and directed two films: The Shirt and Rex Melville Desire: The Musical.