Thursday, April 19, 2012


Incredibly good meal last night at the new Popolino from Peter McAndrews of Modo Mio/Paesano's/Monsu fame. How an Irish guy makes Italian food this good I'll never know. The space was formerly Lafayette Bistro. They've replaced the ugly chairs and painted the walls, but not much else. The food, however, could not be more strikingly different. Gone are bland takes on boring "mediterranean" dishes. In are flavorful plates of strong tasting ingredients done in a Roman style, executed to perfection. One of the best meals I've had this year. 

complimentary bruschetta - fresh ricotta & roasted tomato

The menu is set up in a similar fashion to Modo Mio with a menu turista for $40 where you'll get an appetizer, pasta, main and a dessert. This is definitely the best way to go to get a large sampling of the menu. When everyone at your table has four dishes, you get to taste all kinds of good things. 

the Tavola Calda 
A fairly unique feature of Popolino is the enormous table occupying about half the dining room floor, covered in all sorts of gorgeous looking bits of antipasti. You can have this as your appetizer, but sadly, it's not a serve yourself situation. Our waiter brought back a good sampling though.  Beets, broccolini, roasted eggplant, sun dried tomatoes, chickpeas, orzo salad and some lovely dark beans seasoned with cinnamon. An exotic mix of flavors and an excellent starting point. 

selections from the Tavola Calda

There's a whole pig's leg sitting on the aforementioned table just waiting to give up it's tender prosciutto. Sliced by hand by the servers, I got goose bumps thinking back to our trip in Spain and the jamon that seems to be a form of currency there. This prosciutto is close to being useful as bartering chips. 

mozzarella in carozza
Pretty sure I've seen this on the menu at Modo Mio, but I'm definitely not complaining. The mozzarella stuffed Italian bread, egg dipped, pan fried, and drizzled with anchovy caper butter is one of the best appetizers in the city. It's melting cheese, salty, buttery, rich and indulgent. But just the right size portion so you can actually eat the rest of your meal. Stellar. 

The rosemary grilled calves’ tongue on Roman gnocchi, orange horseradish and beet gremolata is one of the chef's odes to offal that litter the menu and offer something interesting to adventurous eaters. This delicately cooked tongue tastes like the best roast beef you ever had, but better. The Roman style gnocchi was fantastic. Basically one huge gnocchi, it's baked to a near golden crust on the outside, with the middle still tender with near melting cheese. Wow. 

rigatoni alla gamberi
The pastas, as expected, are near perfection. Not quite the deft touch that you would see at a Marc Vetri restaurant, but a more rustic, simple version that seems meant to be shared. The rigatoni with shrimp, smoked paprika, almonds & garlic was my favorite (and also my pick). The little slivers of shrimp, perfectly tender, and the whole thing dripping of the paprika tinged oil. It's like Spain and Italy made a baby. A very delicious baby. 

bucatini all’amatriciana
Bucatini, my favorite kind of pasta. With the little hole in the middle, it just soaks up sauce so amazingly. This sauce is a red one, with guanciale (similar to pancetta but made from the pig cheek), pecorino, & spicy tomato. Just enough heat to keep it interesting, and a lovely undertone from the pork. Mmmm. 

rigatoni squazzetto
Squazzetto is another offal dish - dubbed as an "ancient butcher’s sauce" of liver, kidney & heart, & spicy tomato. It's not dainty. It's very rich and impressively meaty. I loved the tiny sprinkling of pecorino cheese on top. Almost a tease. 

grilled mackerel, with sun dried tomatoes
One of the fish specials, along with a whole bronzino (why is that on every menu in the city?) was a terrific piece of grilled mackerel. A strong tasting fish that holds up well to the flame and pungent ingredients like the sun dried tomatoes and pesto on top. Light and tender, it's the perfect thing for a warm summer night.  

On the opposite side of light and tender is the butcher’s style oxtail, braised with celery, white wine, tomato, pine nuts, and cocoa.This should be shared with the entire table, since your're going to need help finishing after all the pasta, appetizers and house baked bread. Super tender, falling off the bone, meaty and rich. It is the kind of dish to resuscitate a famished Deadliest Catch fisherman. Or give a normal human being a proper food baby. 

mascarpone cheesecake
The desserts were good, but we hardly had room. Mascarpone cheesecake was my favorite, the chocolate hazlenut tart with fresh cream got the call from the wifey. Probably the most eye catching was a panna cotta with a neon green basil sauce. One bite was good. Two bites was one too many. That one might need some rethinking. 

chocolate hazlenut tart
Having yet another Italian restaurant from McAndrews is a burden we will happily bear in Northern Liberties. Don't forget the free shots of limoncello or sambuca after the dessert - a tradition that I'm happy to see carried over from his other restaurants. Modo Mio will always be our favorite, but I'm foreseeing quite a few nights at Popolino too. Decisions, decisions.  

Food Baby rating: Triplets! 

501 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19123
T: 215 928-0106

Cash Only
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,
Saturday & Sunday

Lunch - 11.00am - 2.30pm
Dinner - 5.00pm - 10.00pm

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