Popina is my new favorite Italian restaurant in New York

Above: “beef maitake parmesan olio nuovo” at Popina in Brooklyn.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to sit down for coffee with two of my best friends in the New York food and wine scene, a couple — she’s a famous Italian food writer, he’s a beloved Italian wine maven — who have lived and eaten Italian food in Manhattan and Brooklyn since they were children.

While they have a new favorite Sicilian and one of their old favorites has recently enjoyed a rush of celebrity thanks to its resident “pasta granny,” my fellow foodie chums both bemoaned the lack of great Italian gastronomic options in the city where America’s current Italian culinary renaissance was launched nearly two decades ago.

Above: “casarecce, chicken liver ragu, pecorino.”

As the super rich crowd has flocked to Manhattan and Brooklyn, they noted, real estate prices are simply too high to sustain the city’s once vibrant and thriving Italian restaurant community.

Well, I’m happy to report that there is still hope: I discovered my new favorite Italian in New York on Tuesday night when I attended a wine dinner at Popina on Columbia St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

The food was so simple and the flavors so pure that our meal reminded me of some of the best I’ve ever had in Italy.

In true Italian style, the richness of the chicken liver ragù (above) didn’t overwhelm the homey flavor of the handmade pasta. It’s so easy for a dish like this to turn out gooey and heavy and get out of whack. but Popina’s version was balanced and elegant. Man, I loved this dish!

Above: “duck leg hazelnuts, grits, greens.”

Likewise, the duck leg, despite the fattiness and high protein content of the materia prima, had just the right combination of flavor and texture, making it delicate and light on the palate — the kind of delightful deception only the best chefs can attain.

It reminded me of some of the best roast goose legs I’ve had in Italy in terms of how it was prepared. The roast hazelnuts made for a decisive Piedmontese touch and their crunchiness worked wonderfully against the fall-off-the-bone meat. And I loved that the chef served it over grits.

What a great restaurant! And the nicest folks! I can’t wait to get back.

And the wine?

We tasted a flight of Barale Barolo going back to the 50s. But more on that later.

In the meantime, book yourself a table at Popina (but make sure to check the website because the restaurant has recently updated its hours).

The name Popina, btw, is after an ancient Roman dialectal term meaning kitchen or tavern. In Latina literature, it appears in reference to communal, low-brow dining establishments (the kind we like!). The owner told me that all the cool kid wine people in Manhattan hang out there these days and the wine list is amazing. (Marguet, anyone? They have a really cool selection of the wines and other best-kept-secrets.)

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