Home cooking is king for Russell Norman. "The best restaurants in the world come second to the most humble homes in the world," says the 51-year-old restaurateur. "It really is that dramatic a feeling for me."

The food writer and businessman, known for his Polpo restaurants, which serve Venetian small plates, felt this so strongly in fact, that he's paired his love of home cooking with his adoration for Venice in a new cookbook.

Venice: Four Seasons Of Home Cooking, is the result. It saw him spend 14 months living and embedding himself in the blue-collar district of Giardini, Castello - with an idea to write a recipe collection "live, in real time" and inspired by Venetian home cooks, whose cuisine he felt was often obscured by the city's restaurants targeting tourists with pizza and lasagne.

Had he not moved there, Norman believes he'd have missed "the excitement the whole neighbourhood felt" when the changing of seasons affected what was being put on the table. For instance, he'd never have experienced the mad-dash made by local fishermen when the temperature in Venice's lagoon changed "just enough for the local crabs (moechi) to shed their summer shells". They're soft for fewer than 24 hours; a very short window in which to harvest them for their sweet, expensive flesh, before their shells crust over and harden.

Venice's food culture is endlessly alluring, the west-Londoner says, particularly considering its geographic and topographic diversity. It's incredible how self-sufficient and well-fed the city is. "It's preposterous when you think about it, a city built in the sea, but they've made it work," says Norman, noting the seafood and plump, violet artichokes, asparagus spears and taut courgettes that come from the nearby island of Sant'Erasmo, despite regular salt-water flooding.

There's a knack to being accepted by the locals

Despite his shared joy of Venetian produce, slipping into his new neighbourhood took a bit of work. "It's difficult for mainland Italians to feel welcomed, so you can imagine an Englishman whose Italian is quite shaky anyway, living amongst people that have been in that neighbourhood for generations," Norman reveals wryly. "All of a sudden, there's a guy who doesn't just come and go like a tourist would, who's persistent and asks questions."

He admits he became "a bit of a stalker" to some of his neighbours, "in the most benign way", becoming fascinated with where and what they were shopping for and asking what they were planning to do with the produce they picked up. "Once they saw I was interested in their food and culture, their heritage and family recipes, they opened up completely.

"Although it took a while," he adds with a laugh, "but eventually I got tolerated."

Shopping properly is key to Venetian food

Mrs Scarpa and Mrs Povinelli were perhaps his biggest inspirations, as he traced their steps between the greengrocer's barge at the bottom of the Via Garibaldi, the fishmonger stalls and butcher's, picking up their habits - shopping seasonally and daily - as he went. "Someone once said Italian cooking is as much about good shopping as it is about technique in the kitchen - and it's absolutely true. If you go to the market and the greengrocer says, 'These are absolutely fantastic', take him at his word."

The same went for enjoying passeggiata, an evening stroll "when, in the summer, the heat of the day has dissipated and you've got a lovely orange glow from the light". Residents stop intermittently for snacks and an aperitivo at Venice's many bacarci (little wine bars), to learn of the "news and the gossip, who's fallen out with who, who's having sex with who".

He followed the lead of his neighbours in his tiny kitchen, in his "very humble apartment", too. "I had a little four-ring gas burner and a Carrera marble worktop - it's cheap as chips in Italy and is a very good surface to work on because it retains this cold quality. Even in high summer, you can make your pasta dough directly onto it."

Your kitchen equipment doesn't need to state-of-the-art to produce great food

Norman, who first visited Venice as a teenager, had to think again about using his own professional kitchen kit though. "They don't have 14 different chef knives," he says of the home cooks he encountered. "They have a single serrated plastic handled knife they probably bought 10 years ago from the supermarket for a couple of Euros - and they're still using it."

That's not to say he didn't start his Venetian stint with a separate suitcase full of sharpened chef knives. "I realised it was wrong, I wanted to do things in the same way as my neighbours, so I bought my two-Euro knife," he says with a laugh. "It's really good, it cuts everything - it took a bit of getting used to; I'm used to chopping an onion very quickly.

"You've got to slow down and do it like an 85-year-old woman would - but I found my inner 85-year-old woman, and she enjoyed it."

Now back from Italy, he's embarking on a move to Kent, where he has a "wreck" of a 550-year-old farmhouse to wrangle into shape. "I've got this fantasy of continuing to work in London, but to live in a rural setting with a kitchen garden, maybe some chickens or some India runner ducks, and my own leeks, courgettes, corn and radicchio," he muses.

It's a fantasy sure to be realised, after all, he achieved all his dreams in Venice: "I had this image of sitting on a balcony with a chair, a table and a bowl, shelling a big bag of peas - and I managed it."

Venice: Four Seasons Of Home Cooking by Russell Norman, photography by Jenny Zarins, is published by Fig Tree, priced £26. Available March 29.

This hearty soup uses up lots of leftover bread.

"So often, domestic Italian recipes call for stale bread, usually chopped or torn into small chunks and sometimes soaked in milk. It is this frugal, sensible approach to household management that characterizes the cooking I love and certainly informs the choices of home cooks in Venice; always with one eye on the purse strings," says food writer and restaurateur, Russell Norman.

"Ribollita is a great example of a hearty dish that, despite its humble, inexpensive ingredients, does not compromise on flavour. The addition of the bread creates a texture that I find deeply comforting, too."


(Serves 4)

300g dried cannellini beans

2 bay leaves

Extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, finely diced

1 large carrot, finely diced

1 large celery stalk, finely diced

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

Flaky sea salt

1tsp fennel seeds, crushed

A small handful of thyme leaves

Freshly ground black pepper

1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes

1/2 a loaf of stale bread, crustless, torn into small chunks

1 whole cavolo nero, roughly shredded


1. Soak the beans overnight in a very large bowl with one of the bay leaves and plenty of cold water. Next day, drain the beans, transfer to a large pan, and cover well with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes, until soft. While cooking, remove scum as it comes to the surface. Retain two large cups of the cooking water, drain the beans and set aside.

2. In a large, heavy-based saucepan, heat a good glug or two of olive oil and gently saute the onion, carrot, celery and garlic for a good 15 minutes, until soft and glossy. Add a good pinch or two of salt, the crushed fennel seeds, the thyme and a twist of black pepper.

3. Now add the chopped tomatoes, the cooked beans, one of the cups of cooking water and the second bay leaf, and stir over a medium heat for about 30-45 minutes. About halfway through, submerge the chunks of stale bread in the soup and add the shredded cavolo nero. You may need to use the second cup of cooking water.

4. When done, your thick soup will improve vastly if you leave it overnight in the fridge and reheat it the next day (ribollito means 're-boiled'). Either way, remember to remove the bay leaves and finish each bowl with a twist of pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

Venice: Four Seasons Of Home Cooking by Russell Norman, photography by Jenny Zarins, is published by Fig Tree, priced £26. Available March 29.