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Popolo’s Striking Balance

As Melbourne and Sydney’s upmarket eateries tweak their offerings, jostling to maintain market share, one Sydney restaurant strikes a clever balance without stooping to the lows of burgers and fast Asian bites. Catering to all walks of life, Popolo in Rushcutters Bay delivers authentic Southern Italian fare paired with an exciting range of wines from a list crafted by the restaurant’s passionate Italian-born owner Flavio Carnevale. He has turned Popolo into a Sydney mainstay built on the principle that fresh is best, with no room for compromise.

Popolo’s food is uncomplicated and there’s no unnecessary fussing around with the produce: presentation is authentic, unpretentious and designed to impress the palate. While many plates showcase the striking beauty of selected ingredients, it is the subtle care in preparation that makes the food shine. Finding such a delightfully modest menu in Sydney is a little like locating the needle in a haystack. It’s as popular with after-work mums quaffing a vino as they chow down on a courtyard pizza with the kids as it is with the suits debating the week’s highs and lows over a Friday long lunch; all seem to enjoy the relaxed space. In true Southern Italian trattoria style Popolo isn’t overly sexed-up or flashy, retaining a distinctly homely feel. Flavio explains that many patrons are weekly regulars, friends, and families who live nearby rather than business diners, but on a Friday and over the weekends there’s a very heathy mix of clientele. As I sit on a corner banquette, sipping a beautifully fragrant and balanced amber ale from the Valle d’Aosta, awaiting my first plate, the mood is convivial, warm and relaxed.

A central bar is the room’s focus, curved at one end with vintage pressed metal, painted red, wrapping its sides. Bentwood chairs are lined around. You can’t miss the prosciutto carving stand at which Flavio carves the moist cured meat by hand. It’s evident that he loves his craft and cares for his diners. With cool ease he works the room, sharply but quietly. The silver service is impressively polished, I watch him transfer wood-fired jumbo prawns from a small cast iron skillet to a guest’s plate with a sure hand, pouring wines and unobtrusively engaging in light conversation.

Flavio has hit on a winner with Popolo. Its concept, to showcase food and wine of the Italian regions at and below the latitude of parallel 41 – encompassing Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and the islands: Sicily and Sardinia – offers Sydney diners a well-curated cultural experience. As with many a foodie obsession, inspiration starts with an impressive wine – in Flavio’s case it was the Sella & Mosca Parallelo 41 from Alghero, Sardinia – a delightful drop made from two grape varieties, torbato and sauvignon blanc. Flavio generously pours me the 2014 vintage, which boasts an impressive mineral freshness. Punchy fragrances of acacia, honey and a hint of vanilla are reminiscent of a just-opened aged champagne. The fruit tastes exotic, clean and lean on the palate but also touched with a richer, rounder toasty finish. Torbato is mostly grown in the French wine region of Côtes du Roussillon; wine historians believe it was the Catalan people, under the rule of the Crown of Aragon, who took the variety to Sardinia. It has a unique flavour and is an utterly classy wine. With each sip I can understand Flavio’s drive to share the experience.

The meal begins with a small wood-fired schiacciatina pizza, stretched thin, with a simple but marvellous topping of tomato and oregano. Flavio says the secret is in the Italian Roma tomatoes and his long time Calabrian pizzaiolo’s fiery passion that he puts into the dough.

A Cataldo Calabretta Ansonica from Calabria is the next wine poured. It’s an astonishing, almost luminous, bright yellow colour, wildly aromatic with scents of yellow cherries, ground pinoli (pine nuts) and other more delicate floral scents paired with honey. The wine’s additional mineral complexity – described on the bottle as ‘wet stones’ is accurate. Think fresh alpine water splashing over river rocks combined with a little sea-salt air – it’s primal. So too are the succulent gamberone (giant prawns) cooked with a salsa of preserved lemon, mint and parsley. They’re tender, sweet, packed with flavour and are a perfect match for the wine. Cooked at 420C in the wood oven, the heads and skins char and crisp up as they are blasted with heat. That releases the juices from the head, creating an intense instant bisque that enriches the flesh. It’s an object lesson in fine simplicity.

Pomodori Ripieni – stuffed tomatoes with ricotta – are topped with basil oil and nduja, a spreadable salami paste that’s packed with a fiery chilli heat. It is both sweet and earthy in taste and soft and crunchy in texture. The chilli within the nduja packs a punch, so I’m grateful to cool my palate with yet another gem of a white: Pierluigi Zampaglione 2013 Don Chisciotte Fiano from Campania. While fiano can be a touch one-dimensional this wine presents an array of tantalising, palate-teasing sensations. It is similar in style to a fino sherry, all textural with nutty and earthy tones offering great weight and complexity, but adds bitter orange, honey and dried tobacco leaf for even more depth. The finish is refreshingly lean, yet smooth. Like so many wines on Flavio’s impressive list, it’s one to come back for, to taste again and be reminded of its charms.

Perhaps one of the most beautifully designed plates on the menu is the Octopus Sopressa. The flesh is thinly sliced and topped with a garden of caper berries and their leaves, cherry tomatoes, olive tapenade, chilli and garlic. A tiny drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil completes the dish. The octopus has been softly poached in a marinade of fennel, peppercorns, garlic, salt, white wine and sherry. After the brining process the legs are curled and tucked into the head cavity and the octopus is pressed as it cools. For serving it is finely sliced when cold. I adore it and urge you to try this Mediterranean masterpiece.

Other seafood dishes include the al dente saffron-infused fregola topped with fresh spanner crab meat: just stir it though the warm pasta to allow very gentle cooking. Divine! Today’s market fish, pan-seared then oven baked for a crispy skin finish, is a perfectly seasoned blue-eye cod (trevalla). This perfectly cooked fillet, moist, flavoursome and juicy, is served with a light and simple salad of shaved fennel, tomatoes, green olives and caper berry leaves.

And let’s not forget pasta! Flavio’s Sardinian pasta maker has been rolling out his fresh hand made pasta daily at Popolo for 4 years. His stone ground wholemeal Maltagliati is softly sweet and earthy with a silk texture, it is art – handmade perfection.

To finish, a beautifully presented cassata semifreddo is paired with a Masseria Falvo 1727 Moscato Passito – a Calabrian wine similar in style to marsala, yet more savoury and lean. Candied Italian citrus and a thick dark chocolate sauce, crushed almonds and pistachios and lavender cream accompany the semifreddo. The balance of flavours is a pleasant departure from the modern Australian dessert tendency to layer overly sweet items.

Popolo – Italian for ‘people’ – offers guests warm and honest hospitality. The list of unusual but excellent wines and skilful preparation of the food allow quality produce to sing.