“Well this is jolly isn’t it?” shouts over my friend as she weaves through a throng of packed tables and cheerful men embracing, Negronis in hand.
Sadly Sicily this is not, but there’s certainly something of the playful island about Circolo Popolare; from the over-the-top interiors to the air of boozy celebration on a Sunday. This is the second opening this year from Big Mamma Group (the first being Shoreditch’s instant hit Gloria) and despite sitting just behind Tottenham Court Road the front door may as well be a closet to Narnia; because this ain’t London.
When full - which I imagine it is often – 280 guests are seated against a backdrop of lavish chandeliers, hanging wisteria, hundreds – possibly thousands – of bottles of wine and spirits lining the walls, picture frames everywhere. It’s mad and distracting, but certainly ignites a fire in those who enter.
On a Sunday, the age old question of “to drink or not to drink” is eclipsed by a much harder decision; whether to park the idea of a crisp white and go Insta-gold with a tit-adorned cocktail mug packed with three rums, almond hibiscus syrup, Triple Sec, lime, maracuja. Look Me In The Eyes, you’re a cruel temptress. For those who do abstain, there’s a spread of Italian sodas, with the bittersweet Chinotto Lurisa poured on a Pisa tower of ice giving you almost the same feeling of that first cool Peroni on holiday.
The menu on a Sunday is a monster, from brunch classics with a flourish (avocado on toast with stracciatella and Tuscan ham), to generous pizzas with playful names (I Wanna Nduja) and a signature carbonara for two that arrives in a giant round of pecorino.
My intolerant-to-everything companion started off with a fresh tomato gluten-free bruschetta with burrata, followed by an Italian chopped salad presented in the size of bowl you’d feed a family from, adding some sizzle to the only virtuous dish on the menu. I grazed on a moreish plate of San Daniele Ham, which I ended up doing so with my fingers, so convinced was I that I was reclining by the Italian Riviera.
For my main? A simple, unctuous tomato and aubergine linguine with a creamy burrata and a snowstorm of parmesan. I loved every mouthful.
The conviviality of the place is mirrored by the team, who seem to be constantly egging you on to relax, take your time, don’t say “basta” yet on the cheese, and the dessert absolutely isn’t too big for you (it bloody is). Finish off a big meal with espressos and the Dessert Island, a whipped egg-white mountain with caramel rivulets. Then promise to return with a gaggle of friends next time, ideally in the throws of a blurry hangover or when battling end of summer blues.
Circolo, you eccentric, silly aunt, we’ll be back when life gets a little too London.
For more info, see Circolo Popolare