I think I will have to call it ‘Circolo face’.
Not long into my lunch at Fitzrovia’s Circolo Popolare — French restaurant group Big Mamma’s unfathomably enormous, typically overblown follow-up to Gloria in Shoreditch — I started to notice a pattern of freshly arrived diners with the same expression: a highly specific mix of bedazzled awe, dumbstruck amusement and slight, mouth-gaping terror.
It is about the only face you can pull given the circumstances. Because, here, even before you get to the food and drink — a winking, ALLCAPS riot of metre-long rectangular pizzas, fruit-clogged fish-bowl cocktails and the sort of one-litre sundaes that usually come with a commemorative T-shirt on completion — you will have negotiated a room that feels like stepping into an alternate dimension of supreme restaurant industry confidence. It is a teeming, 280-cover Sicilian plaza of climbing plants, spirit bottles stacked to double-height, twinkling festoon lights, nonna-pleasing knick-knacks and cushion-piled stone booths, all set above flickering subterranean toilets.
There is music (modestly cranked wedding bangers and Italian oldies) but the dominant soundtrack is the swell of excited conversation and an occasional booming ‘Buongiorno!’ from one of the chirpy platoon of young Italian staff.
It is an atmosphere of boisterous, cluttered, Italianate razzle-dazzle, and I struggle to see how anyone could not ultimately be won over by the mad, thrusting spectacle of it.
To the food, then, where standards are generally higher than you would expect them to be at a place with a giant, wipe-clean menu laden with eyebrow-waggling puns (a pizza called I Wanna Nduja is roughly the level we’re working with here). Sipping, respectively, a beer and a rum-spiked Look Me in the Eyes cocktail offering faint hints of passion fruit and an encroaching headache, my wife and I were presented rapidly with rotolo: a belting heat-bubbled truncheon of dough, rolled with cheese, punchy herbs and the sweet surprise of softened walnuts. Then came two fantastically sloppy Sardinian empanadas: weighty, puffed parcels bursting with a gooey pork ragu and the perky hum of fennel.
Madeleine’s Orlando Blue pizza was deftly paddled out of one of the open kitchen’s twin rotary ovens with a flumped inner tube of speckled, chewy crust and a topping — burstingly fresh peaches undercut by delicate sheafs of speck ham and the sharp honk of gorgonzola — packing a balanced blast of sunshine. Set against that, my Carmina Burrata linguine, splatted with a creamy slick of ‘burrata heart’ and nicely ripe San Marzano tomato and aubergine sauce, was fine if a little lacking in zap. There were Crudo Croccante along the way, too; merely passable little boats of lettuce, brimming with cured sea bass, confit tomatoes and dinky curls of candied orange.
Still, we finished strong, polishing off our puddings — a stiffly whipped, appealingly bitter tiramisu and more fat peach hunks, splashing in a judiciously tart lemon verbena syrup like high-grade Del Monte — while watching a room that never looked like emptying. It’s hard to know where the Big Mamma success story (a business model predicated on rapid expansion and the scale needed to offer top-tier produce at reasonable, millennial-friendly prices) will ultimately lead. They could be a truly sustainable game changer or merely Jamie’s Italian in cooler trainers. But, for now, Circolo Popolare (which roughly translates as ‘people’s social club’) legitimately feels like the hottest place in town; intoxicatingly cheeky, stealthily drilled and primed to leave you sporting a smile as wide as the Mediterranean.
1 Orlando Blue pizza £14
1 Circolo’s Sardinian empanada £8
1 CrudO croccante £9
1 Carmina Burrata £12
1 Rotolo with herbs £6
1 Dessert Il Tigramisù £6
1 Peach Face dessert £7
1 Look Me in the Eyes cocktail £9
2 Pig & Porter lagers £6
1 English breakfast tea £3
1 Doppio macchiato £4.50
Think Forward charity donation £1