InterviewsThe Collection

‘Ugly but good’: restaurateur Russell Norman on his obsession with Tuscan cuisine

On the release of his latest recipe book, restaurateur Russell Norman speaks to Tomé Morrissy-Swan about the charms of Tuscany’s rustic cuisine

Words by Tomé Morrissy-Swan

Photography by Jenny Zarins

Russell Norman
The Collection
Russell Norman's Brutto is a restaurant that takes inspiration from Florence’s trattorie

Russell Norman has always had a ‘slightly obsessive’ love affair with Italy, in his own words, and he could bang on about Tuscany and, in particular, Florence for hours. But Florence wasn’t the restaurateur’s first love. That was Venice. ‘I first visited as a teenager and was completely blown away,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t really get it out of my mind, to misquote Kylie Minogue.’ So he went back again and again. And again.

It was only in his late 20s that he ventured elsewhere. To Florence. ‘I realised, “Oh my god, Italy isn’t just Venice – it’s these other wonderful cities and rural areas, too.”’ Subsequent Tuscan holidays cemented the region’s place in his heart.

Inside of Brutto restaurant
The dining room at Brutto in Farringdon, London

Norman rose to fame with Polpo, his chain of Venetian-style restaurants in London. Founded in a post-recession world in 2009, Polpo was credited – somewhat reductively – with introducing small plates to London. No longer involved in the two remaining sites, in 2021 Norman opened a new restaurant based on Tuscany. In the hands of some, this homage to Florentine trattorie, complete with gingham tablecloths and fiasco bottles, would feel twee. But under Norman’s stewardship, Brutto is thriving.

That’s impressive in a city crawling with Italian restaurants but with regionality increasingly sought (thanks partly to Polpo), Norman felt London lacked a Tuscan trattoria. ‘Each of Italy’s 20 regions is unique, and Florence has its own culinary identity and traditions.’ Those traditions centre on the concept of brutti ma buoni, ‘ugly but good’, from which Brutto takes its name. For Norman, Tuscan cuisine is ‘the sort of cooking your grandmother does at home, rather than a fancy chef in a fancy restaurant. There’s no twists, twirls or smears on plates – it’s very simple.’

'There’s no twists, twirls or smears on plates – it’s very simple'

Tuscan cooking is decidedly un-modern and there’s no beating around the bush: it’s meat, meat, meat. Menus across Florence flog wild boar ragu, the peppery beef-shin stew peposo, huge bistecca alla fiorentina and the infamous lampredotto, a cow’s fourth stomach, stewed and served in a panino. Fresh pasta is everywhere, often with generous shavings of black truffle. You can’t move for crostini with liver pâté. There are also beans aplenty (Tuscans are known, in a slightly derogatory fashion, as bean eaters), with borlotti, cannellini and other types of fagioli often found on menus. It’s not even beige cooking – it’s brown. ‘But my god, does it taste good,’ Norman stresses.

Good, hearty food needs matching drink and Brutto’s £5 Negronis go down a storm. But for Norman, there’s nothing better than Chianti. ‘Even in a simple hillside trattoria or a backstreet osteria in a city, the wine on offer is similar everywhere,’ he says. ‘It always includes fantastic Chianti, and there’s a reason it’s so popular. It’s incredibly well rounded and with a wonderful mouthfeel. If you have a glass, you immediately want a second one. It’s not complicated but it has character.’ At Brutto, Norman serves an exclusive organic Chianti from celebrated winemaker Alberto Antonini’s Poggiotondo winery – in fiaschi, of course. ‘We sell gallons of the stuff.’

I always try to make everything I do simple and accessible for the home cook

Norman’s greatest inspiration comes from Florence’s trattorie, places like Cammillo in the Oltrarno district, with its bohemian clientele, superb homemade pasta and ‘wonderful’ steak tartare. He loves the family-run San Frediano spot Sabatino for rosbif, thin slices of beef served with pan juices and roast potatoes. At Sostanza, the bistecca alla fiorentina is ‘stellar’, while chicken breast poached in butter and served with lemon is to die for. ‘One of the biggest compliments about my restaurant is when people say they didn’t feel like they were in Farringdon but back in Tuscany.’

Now, with Norman’s new book Brutto, you can bring Tuscany home. The recipes are geared towards the amateur cook (Norman himself is not a trained chef): simple and achievable with few basic but quality ingredients. The recipes are about ‘achieving what I do in restaurants in a domestic setting. I always try to make everything I do incredibly simple, accessible and as easy as possible for the home cook.’ With winter coming, it’s time to incorporate Tuscany’s robust cuisine into your canon – three recipes featured in the book are shared here to help you get started.

Brutto by Russell Norman (Ebury Press, 2023) is out now