[ review ]
Peter McAndrews is nothing if not consistent. I know exactly what to expect from his restaurants, an empirelet currently composed of Modo Mio, Monsu, the Paesano's twins, soon-to-open La Porta near Media and Popolino, a bright, buzzy, two-month-old BYOB inspired by those for whom snout-to-tail is an ancient way of life — the "common people" of Rome.
I know there will be revelatory house-baked bread. I know the servers will be relaxed and welcoming, with knowledge of esoteric Italian ingredients, unusual pasta shapes and on-cue accents a la Giada De Laurentiis. I know there will be two or three of those servers working the small dining room, when four would be probably be better. I know the food will be on the rich side, but not unbalanced. I know cash will be the only method of payment.
Popolino crumpled my expectations like wrapping paper. None of what I count on from McAndrews, none of what makes him one of the easiest local chefs to root for, is living here, in the sunny corner space formerly home to Lafayette Bistro. Well, I still had to pay cash, but I can't say I did so willingly.
Would you, for spaghetti gone swimmin' in the sorriest excuse for carbonara this side of Buca di Beppo? Grated cheese, cracked black pepper and crispy bits of pancetta form the base of the typical Roman recipe, ingredients that coalesce into something rich, silky and satisfying with additions of raw egg yolk and a splash of pasta water. At Popolino, it was as if McAndrews' kitchen had added a whole pot of starchy H2O to my carbonara, lending the sauce the pallor and viscosity of skim milk. While proper carbonara clings, this impostor slunk down strands of spaghetti like a Delaware Avenue dancer down a greasy pole.
The spaghetti came as the second course and the first disappointment in Popolino's turista menu, a $40 four-courser as popular here as it is at Modo and Monsu. Before the pasta, things were following a typical McAndrews trajectory, with dense country-style bread, freely poured wine and fun, manic antipasti, like fried calamari tossed with mint, chilies, hard-cooked egg and garum, the ancient Italian take on fish sauce, and succulent grilled lamb rib kebabs astride a comet of cervella (lamb brain) aioli.
Offal, organs and entrails, what Romans call the "quinto quarto" (fifth quarter), flavor Popolino's peasant-food menu, but these dubious treasures are applied in disguise, a la the brain mayo — not McAndrews' original intention for the BYOB. "I was trying to be hardcore with the offal," he says. "Nobody was ordering it."
Ergo, Popolino's organ game has been reeled in. The rigatoni alla pajata (pig-intestine ragu), which I was curious to try, had been banished by the time I visited. Instead, my primi consisted of the aforementioned carbonara and a crock of cauliflower cannelloni in similarly thin, milky tomato-cream sauce. Though the flavors managed to nudge their way to the front of this pasta, shoddy execution again perplexed. The stuffed tubes bore none of the goo, bubble or burnish of baked pasta, with no textural contrasts. I imagined the kitchen, clotheslined with tickets and making shortcuts: "You got only five minutes, cannelloni! Your sister's gotta get in there next!"
The pair of servers, one of which was the manager, was as weeded as I'd pictured the kitchen. As the three-quarters-full dining room crested over its first turn hard into the second, staff got scarcer, delays between courses more noticeable. When food did come, it was dropped off with the reticence of bitter exes sharing custody. The tavola calda, an antipasto platter assembled from a dozen gorgeous vegetable dishes displayed on an antique butcher-block table in the center of the dining room, arrived with no explanation at all, and it's the dish that requires the most.
We managed to figure out the assortment of salads, pickles and agrodolci on our own: roasted carrots made sublime with subtle cinnamon; cauliflower cooked the same way, then tossed with raisins and almonds; honeyed roasted peppers; al dente borlotti beans anointed with aged balsamic; beets with orange and mint and more. Still, a run-through would have been helpful, considering the shy tuna hiding in the dynamic chickpea salad rouged with smoked paprika. Without introduction, the innocuous-looking tavola is a dangerous territory for vegans and vegetarians.
There should have been a hostess that night (there wasn't) according to McAndrews, and a sick server apparently had the dining room down a body, which may have forced the manager onto the floor. But I've seen managers pull dedicated server shifts at McAndrews joints before, a practice that, besides feeling greasy, can lead to a disorganized front of the house. This night, Popolino needed the soothing, ship-righting presence of a proper GM, able to pitch in at tight spots, sweet-talk impatient customers and assuage the room's sweaty chaos.
Seven and 7:30 reservations were pouring through the front door when entrées arrived: an overcooked beef involtino simmered in marinara till disintegrating for the lady. Yours truly got measly wisps of off-the-bone oxtail in a soupy cocoa gravy that could have been chocolate milk were it not for the celery and pine nuts. By the time we got to the stiff panna cotta with competing accents of apricots, hazelnuts and sapa (some 45 minutes later), I'd had enough. The wine was drained, like my patience.
There is hope. Chris Davis, formerly of Barbuzzo, has just come on board to fix a kitchen whose leadership and ability McAndrews claims he never felt 100 percent about. Coming from Barbuzzo, I'm sure he'll bring style and edge to the cooking at Popolino. Or at least know how to make carbonara.
Popolino | 501 Fairmount Ave., 215-928-0106. Lunch/brunch served Wed.-Mon., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner served 5-10 p.m. Appetizers, $8-$11; pasta, $13-$16; entrées, $15-$23; desserts, $6; "turista" tasting menu, $40. BYOB.