Even at 10am on a Tuesday, Circolo Popolare buzzes with an undercurrent of electricity. Waiters lay tables and polish glasses, while members of the 46-strong kitchen team fire up pizza ovens and shake out pasta dough. Quickfire Italian shuttles back and forth across countertops as the staff call out morning greetings, jokes, insults. The energy is palpable, and contagious.
Circolo is the latest addition to Big Mamma’s incredibly successful stable of nine restaurants across Paris, Lille and London. Despite only opening a few weeks ago, it’s already gained a reputation for its party atmosphere.
‘We don’t have to try to be cool. We are cool,’ deadpans Salvatore Moscato, Circolo’s head chef. At 26, he’s certainly young to be heading up London’s most anticipated new restaurant. But at Circolo he’s practically over the hill. The average age of chefs and serving staff there is 22, a factor that’s probably partly to thank for that underlying sense of hedonism. The 20,000 bottles of alcohol that line the walls don’t do any harm either.
Like the majority of the Big Mamma team, Moscato is an Italian native, and was born in Naples. ‘I was born with a pizza in my hands,’ he laughs, although he’s not really joking. He started working in his uncles’ restaurants when he was just 14, and joined Big Mamma at the tender age of 22, working his way up to head chef in four short years.
‘Everything we do, from the restaurant to the design, we do it with a twist,’ he says, explaining the Big Mamma mentality. At Circolo, this means a Sicilian-inspired menu packed with the finest Italian produce, but reimagined in a slightly out-of-the-ordinary way. For example, the lasagne is served pared back to its vital parts, recreated as a single sheet of pasta loaded with Cinta Senese pork from Tuscany. The pizzas, meanwhile, come at a metre long, and are intended to be shared around the table, along with unorthodox ingredients like peaches and honey (yes, Hawaiian haters will have a field day here).
The presence of dishes like scotch eggs on the menu – made Italian with lemon zest, fennel seeds and a healthy dollop of aioli – also show how traditional cooking has gone out the window here. ‘If I gave these dishes to my grandmother, she’d say “what the f*** is that?”’ laughs Moscato. ‘But we want to give our customers something different.’
Being different is also the key to standing out in a city where most new restaurants have the lifespan of a mayfly. Moscato is acutely aware of the pressure on him as a young chef branching out into the notoriously difficult London food scene – and in a restaurant as hotly anticipated as Circolo, to boot. On Circolo’s opening night alone he had 460 covers. It’s definitely made him raise his game. ‘It’s very competitive; you have to be very precise,’ he explains. ‘You don’t have to work more, necessarily, but faster.’
That doesn’t mean they can’t have a bit of fun – and the infectious energy of the young team shows they’re more than willing to shake things up. ‘Here we have the opportunity to be serious and work, but also to be ourselves,’ Moscato explains. ‘If I want to sing a song with the guys in the kitchen I can. If you love this work then you need the customers to feel that pleasure, too. They need to feel like they’re on their sofa at home, drinking wine, and eating whatever they want. It [Circolo] has to feel like the best moment of their week.’
If you go to Circolo looking for a party, you’re heading to the right place. Don’t, however, go looking for the kind of lasagne your grandmother might recognise. You won’t find it here.
40-41 Rathbone Place, W1T 1HX, bigmammagroup.com