At Popina, Italian Favorites Come With a Southern Twang


Most cooking now incorporates some portion of what we think of as fusion, or the blending of multiple cuisines and cooking styles. Some chefs do it better than others. But I’ll gladly put up with sushirritos and ramen burgers if it means New York also gets restaurants like Chinese Tuxedo, or Shalom Japan, Williamsburg’s bastion of Japanese-Jewish food.

In that same vein comes Popina, James O’Brien and chef Chris McDade’s pint-sized trattoria, which stirs a sumptuous melting pot of Italian and American Southern cooking. With its warm, earnest service descended from the Danny Meyer school of hospitality, the restaurant — which took over the original Pok Pok Ny space across from the Columbia Street Waterfront — gleams in much the same way. And, for those who like mingling their meatballs with bocce balls, there’s a substantial wood-lined outdoor court in the restaurant’s spacious backyard. 

You’ll find it in the far corner, past umbrella-covered patio tables and a patchy mosaic of cement tiles that gives this space the appearance of excavated Roman ruins. When the weather’s right, it’s a splendid place to take refuge from our own ostensibly declining empire, tossing around pastel-colored balls with a bottled Negroni in tow. Inside, the dining room is virtually unrecognizable from its Pok Pok days, the dark and woodsy vibes replaced by a bright and airy minimalist design sporting neutral tones; though the chalkboard at the back, which now lists cocktails and wines by the glass, remains. Larger groups can reserve Franca’s table, a six-seater situated beneath an imposing photo of the namesake grandmotherly chef from Bari who’s renowned for her orecchiette. Doing so nets you a $65 four-course sampling of the chef’s favorite dishes.

Popina’s owners met while working at Danny Meyer’s Roman love letter, Maialino, and named their new spot for a type of ancient Roman wine bar frequented by plebeians. But while all roads on the menu lead from Rome, they seem to have passed through the Deep South on the way to Brooklyn. Georgia-born McDade, who grew up in Decatur and spent time in Atlanta kitchens before settling in New York, marries elements from regional Italian and American Southern cooking with a captivatingly frank unfussiness. Carolina Gold rice, an heirloom variety from South Carolina’s Lowcountry known for its nuttiness and chew, is formed into fragrant Sicilian arancini ($7). The delicate, crisp globes are buttery within, painted with auburn-shaded stripes of saffron honey, which lend a floral sweetness. A few weeks after opening, burrata ($16) with late-season tomatoes and basil could have been just another caprese. Switched out for figs, what makes this salad really sing is the addition of pistachio pesto, feathery corn shoots, and sweetly crunchy cornbread croutons. And the apex of McDade’s pasta offerings is a $19 tangle of pappardelle sauced with ham-hock ragu, the shreds of slowly wine-braised pork adding labyrinthine depths of flavor to a made-to-order sauce that also includes kale and shishito peppers.

Hot Chicken Milanese ($23) is a lightbulb-over-the-head moment, and one that sums up McDade’s ethos with canny brilliance, seamlessly uniting two classics. The flawless, buttermilk-marinated cutlet boasts an audibly crispy panko crust and relishes in its final drenching of chile oil. Three varieties of hot pepper – cayenne, ancho, and red New Mexico chiles – invest the juicy flattened bird with a sneaking heat that builds but purposefully never reaches the loopy capsicum-induced heights of its Nashville namesake. A huddle of snappy, purplish radicchio leaves slathered in homemade ranch dressing, tangy and bitter, is exactly what the dish needs. Other entrées are a strip-steak and frites with zippy anchovy béarnaise, and the swordfish ($26). About that: Don’t let the words “creamed lettuce” deter you. The accompanying gem leaves are lightly wilted and coated in bay leaf-infused dairy, their lost crunch remedied by a showering of crushed peanuts, a taste of Georgia that. The swordfish steaks are seared until just-golden and fanned out in hefty slices, which are accentuated by a salty garnish of shaved dried fish roe. Altogether, the elements masterfully highlight the fish’s meatiness.

Other plates skew more straightforwardly Italian: sweet clams pair with mild green olives for bruschetta ($15); silky potato puree and Grana Padano cheese prop up pork meatballs ($14), which come sluiced with only a trace of tomato sauce and collapse under the slightest fork nudge. There are also textbook cavatelli ($17) and bucatini ($16) pastas, the former bedecked with spicy pork nduja sausage and ricotta, the latter’s thin strands tossed in Venetian salsa, a jammy amalgam of anchovies and onions. Also on the pasta front, while over the summer Popina’s twirl of chitarra ($18) took a traipse through the garden with cooked down Sungold tomatoes and summer squash, in these cooler days it hangs out with Brussels sprouts, sunchokes, and gremolata.

A chill, friendly host, O’Brien also works the room as sommelier. He’s the kind of wine guy who posts photos on Instagram with #nebbiYOLO, and he does Popina’s wine bar roots proud with a selection of mostly Italian and American bottles that start at around $40. Somewhat surprisingly, there’s a several-page-long “cellar” list available, but it’s a more egalitarian document than its exclusivity might suggest. Besides the expected splurges, there are more affordable rarities, like a hardly-marked-up $58 2015 Giovanni Canonica Langhe nebbiolo (which retails for around $42), all cocoa and berries, that lives up to the hashtag hype. How did it end up on the reserve list? “I could only get my hands on four bottles,” the co-owner muses.

As for finishers, citrusy semifreddo is the Fredo Corleone of the dessert family –weakly flavored with a slight chalkiness. Hope instead that McDade brings back his panna cotta, or pecan-topped bourbon-molasses budino. You can still close out your evening with cheeses ($14) from Italian importer Marcelli or local monger Saxelby’s, but it’s the chocolate chess pie ($9) that steals the show. At first glance it’s the most obviously Southern item on the menu, a whipped-cream-topped mahogany wedge with a browned crust that looks like it came straight from a meat-and-three’s countertop glass-domed display. Then you take a bite and its smooth dark chocolate filling gives way to the minty jolt of cultish amaro Fernet Branca, all under a nicely brittle, buttery crust. Before long, it’s reduced to crumbs. So what if you didn’t improve your bocce game? That’s why there is pie.

127 Columbia Street, Brooklyn