What’s doing at Peter McAndrews’s new Northern Italian BYO, Popolino
501 Fairmount Ave.
Don’t Miss: The lingua or the veal
Skip: The carbonara
When Peter McAndrews opened Monsu last Fall, he brought Sicily to Philadelphia; now the Philly chef and Italian food enthusiast has made his move northwards, bringing the best of Rome with him to his new spot in Northern Liberties. McAndrews named it Popolino; we’re calling it one of the best Italian ventures to come to the city in the last few years.
Popolino’s a BYO, and McAndrews and his staff feel as strongly about pairing the best of the vine with the best of their menu (according to McAndrews, a true Roman meal should be enjoyed in several courses and take two to three hours, which is where the wine comes in). They feel so strongly, in fact, that they brought out their own bottle when we forgot ours. At chef’s suggestion, we succumbed to the four–course–plan, which, at $40, is a deal when you consider that you’ll get antipasti, a first plate, a meat and dessert. “Let me cook for you,” said McAndrews at our indecisiveness, and we didn’t fight it.
We began with an assortment from Popolino’s antipasti table ($8 per person if ordered a la carte) — glazed carrots and roasted eggplant, strips of zucchini and a chickpea–tuna fish salad patterned a white platter alongside fava beans, broccoli rabe and cheese. Our server brought warm rustic bread sliced fresh from its loaf on the table, which they replenished generously. Next came calf’s tongue ($9), fried calamari ($10) and an Italian bread stuffed with mozzarella ($9) — we devoured all three and delighted in the fritti’s red pepper kick, the milkiness of the cheese and the sweet punch of orange accompanying the tongue.
Where pasta was concerned, the signature fettucine alla Romana ($16), topped with a spicy short rib ragu, took it home — Popolino, if nothing else, has mastered the use of tender meats. Whether in comparison or on its own, the carbonara ($13) fell short, more buttery than we’d expected, its flavors too mute even for a cream–based dish.
Given the emphasis the Romans place on their meats, the expectations for Popolino’s main courses were high, and unsurprisingly, McAndrews didn’t disappoint. The standout among three exceptional dishes was McAndrews’s take on veal saltimbocca ($24). Tender veal cutlets came topped with paper–thin prosciutto and fried sage and doused in an addictive white wine sauce that would warrant a plate–licking if this place didn’t have white tablecloths. The butcher’s style oxtail ($20) — butter–soft pieces of oxtail simmering in a tomato and white wine sauce spruced–up by a hint of cocoa — was outstanding. The baccala ($18) was the lightest of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean it lacked flavor. The perfectly–cooked cod tasted delicious topped with a sweet–and–sour sauce composed of pine nuts, prunes and apples.
After such a stunning array of savory dishes, the desserts had a lot to live up to, and despite our full stomachs, they pulled it off. The tiramisu was as good as any in the city, with liqueur–soaked ladyfingers sandwiched between heavenly cream and a generous dusting of cocoa. The chocolate mousse was barely overshadowed by the tiramisu with its rich, dense chocolate paired with a dollop of cream, held together by just the subtlest taste of fruit.
Keep it up, Chef. We’ll be back.