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Serving up pasta with Parmesan ready to spoon at Brutto, in Farringdon.
Serving up pasta with Parmesan ready to spoon at Brutto, in Farringdon.

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Ugly But Good

Inside Brutto, Russell Norman’s Florentine trattoria with a London soul

London restaurant impresario Russell Norman recently opened Brutto, what appears on the outside to be a self-conscious trattoria tribute act, following from the more metropolitan, era-defining template for casual-but-cool, Polpo that eventually spiralled into decline.

But it would be a mistake to classify this restaurant, on Farringdon’s Greenhill Rents, as a Tuscan nostalgia trip. Yes, bistecca alla Fiorentina is charred on the grill bars, flames licking up, before being served unadorned. Yes, chicken liver crostini; pasta e fagioli; red-and-white gingham tablecloths and Parmesan spooned from metal bowls. Yes, billowing tiramisu. Yes, plentiful Negronis; a stand-up bar where the coffee is cheaper than sitting down; prints and portraits on softly lit walls.

But for every tribute to Florence, there’s a touch that prevents it from going full-on shrine. A mural from artist Neil Fox puts all these traditional interiors in a more cacophonous context, while a dish of anchovies, cold butter, and sourdough from St. John Restaurant ties it closer to its surroundings (Fergus Henderson’s seminal institution is just down the road). The atmosphere is less transportive than transient — welcomingly so — with a dining room that quickly feels abuzz and more like it’s been around forever than stuck in an endless past that doesn’t quite exist.

Take a look around.

Brutto owner Russell Norman, wearing a blue suit, walks across a zebra crossing with a bag of pasta flour on his shoulder
Owner Russell Norman bringing in the essentials.
A waitress sets up a table with a white table cloth, salt shakers, white napkins, and silver cutlery. A mural is in the background.
Setting up the dining room.
A bar cart stocked with cutlery, tablecloths, napkins, and gingham drapes.
The essentials.
A waitress sets up a table with a white table cloth, salt shakers, white napkins, and silver cutlery. A mural is in the background.
The table set-up is very classical.
The exterior of Brutto restaurant in London, featuring red-and-white gingham curtains, blue walls, and outdoor tables with brown leather chairs.
And the outside, too.
A waiter prepares napkins for service at Brutto, unfurling them before folding.
General manager Monique Williams, left, holding two wine glasses, and owner Russell Norman, right, with a reservation clipboard, survey the upcoming service.
Waiters at Brutto stand around a dining table in a circle, being briefed by owner Russell Norman and general manager Monique Williams.

Briefing time at Brutto, before lunch.

The exterior of Trattoria Brutto, with tables underlaid with red and white gingham outside, like a typical trattoria.
The entrance that greets customers at Greenhill Rents.
A bartender builds a Negroni cocktail, pouring a measure of campari into a glass.
A Negroni, to begin.
A negroni in a glass with a stir stick, set on a napkin monogrammed in red.
Saluti. Though Brutto is far from a reversion, or throwback to Polpo, making this cocktail its calling card feels like a nod to Norman’s most famous restaurant.
A cook portions dough with a benchscraper.
The beginnings of coccoli, listed as “cuddles” on the menu and with the makings of Brutto’s “it” dish. Dough is portioned...
Dough balls are removed from a deep-fat fryer, golden brown against the metal basket.
... Before being deep-fried into tearable, pillowy chubs, ready to be stuffed with stracchino cheese and prosciutto.
A plate of coccoli with stracchino cheese and prosciutto, next to another plate of pork tonnato with caperberries, both on a black waiter’s tray.
In their final form, alongside a plate of pork tonnato, its pink richness enlivened by caperberries.
A waiter carries a plate of coccoli with stracchino and prosciutto, on a tray.
And now, on the way to a grateful table.
Two tables lit by lanterns from above, with gingham cloths poking out at the corners.
Naturally, the dining room is quiet early on. While Brutto is self-consciously Florentine-inspired, the interiors don’t lean towards pastiche or transportiveness.
Red-and-white gingham tables are backed by a detailed mural by Neil Fox, depicting skeletons, animals, planets, and surfers.
A case in point: As diners take their seats, they are greeted by a mural by Neil Fox, which situates the traditional, nostalgic tablecloths and settings in an edgier, more cacophonous context.
Another wall at Brutto, with banquette seating and light turquoise paintwork, peppered with photos, artworks, and old prints.
By contrast, the portraits, photos, and artworks — as well as the banquette seating — lining the other wall have an older feel.
Two servers, blurred, walk through the Brutto dining room.
The flow begins.
Michaël Protin
Restaurant bills / orders pinned to a wooden wall, with each given a table number.
And the tickets start to stack up.
A waiter carries a plate of pappardelle and a plate of penne alla vodka on a tray.
Plates of pasta are ferried to the dining room. For now, the offering is very classical: a pappardelle with rabbit, and penne alla vodka.
A table laid with pappardelle, salad, a negroni, and a metal bowl of Parmesan with a spoon.
Parmesan waits ready to be spooned on top, with salad for health.
Penne alla vodka on a white plate on a table, with Parmesan scattered over the top. A diner sits in front of it, fork poised.
The penne alla vodka. The pastas will be joined by a “risotto of the day” in the coming weeks, once Norman has enough chefs in his kitchen.
A diner spears penne, in tomato and vodka sauce, on a fork.
Michaël Protin
A chef saws through a T-bone steak, in order to prepare bistecca alla Fiorentina.
The centrepiece of the mains is the appropriately Florentine classic, bistecca alla Fiorentina.
Salting the beef before cooking it, in a metal gastro tray.
It’s one of those dishes with “rules” enmeshed in a city’s culinary history, with both a sense of romance and stuffy preservation. On the other hand, it’s also a big grilled steak.
A beef steak on grill bars, flames licking it from below.
On to the fire: One of those Florentine rules. Not in a pan, please.
A plate of potatoes and a plate of steak on a tray, with a metal dish of green beans.
Served with ceremony and austerity: crisp oven potatoes, and green beans.
A gastro of tiramisù is dusted with cocoa powder.
It will surprise no one that dessert is tiramisu, in a huge dish — both luxurious and generous.
The tiramisù is marked into portions with a knife.
Though the portioning may look geometric and exacting...
Michaël Protin
A plate of tiramisù is ferried to a table.
... What arrives at the table is anything but.
Diners at Brutto, in front of the mural.
So, not quite Florence, not quite London, but somewhere those two cities’s past and present intersect. Like red-and-white tablecloths, in front of a chaotic mural.
Michaël Protin