Modern Italian

IS going out for a lengthy, traditional Italian meal with umpteen courses a thing of the past?

You know the ones where you finish with a flaming sambuca and tiramisu.

On a recent excursion to Northbridge I noticed two of my favourite Italian restaurants had shut down, replaced by Asian fusion restaurants serving more “exotic” cuisine with a faster turnaround. 

I’m sure the old Italian with checkered tablecloths still does well in the burbs, but like the rest of us, perhaps it’s having to adapt to a society where everything is done quicker and people want instant gratification.

The old Roma had been around for decades in Fremantle and was a West End institution, but in recent times it had struggled to attract custom, partly because it was in a foodie no man’s land at the bottom of High Street near The Roundhouse.

It was recently reborn as Vin Populi – refurbed and rebooted by the same folk who own the successful Northbridge restaurant No Mafia, which has a more contemporary take on Italian dining. This was evident at Vin Populi with the hand-held menu jettisoned in favour of a chalkboard on the wall, allowing the chef to be more dynamic and change the menu based on what’s good at market that particular day.

I like the idea, but they need more boards around the cafe as it was above where people were eating, so it felt awkward as you stood in the guts of the restaurant reading the thing. 

The best option was to take a photo on your phone and have a gander back at the table.

The menu had a compact range of antipasti, mains and sides including dishes like gnocchi sardines, tagliatelle osso buco, spaghetti polpette, chicken Milanese and porchetta.

There was a decent range of antipasti like octopus, bocconcini, olives, prosciutto and ciabatta, so if you didn’t want a main you could order some nibbles with a glass of vino.

Wine connoisseurs will love Vin Populi as it has a whopping five page wine list with two devoted to vino from WA. If you found the list overwhelming there was a smaller collection of old favourites on the chalkboard.

On a Friday lunchtime, Vin Populi was a doing a roaring trade and there was a lively buzz to the place.

The refurb was excellent and really opened up the interior, making it bright and airy.

The rough cast, fresco-style walls and archways added an authentic flair and it felt like Italy with a modern twist.

Some of the seating was a bit cramped though and they didn’t have any umbrellas outside, rendering the pavement alfresco a bit redundant during the middle of the day, but they are not long open and I’m sure these peccadilloes will be ironed out. I was lunching with former Herald food critic Jenny D’Anger, who was was no stranger to the venue.

“The first time I ate at the old Roma was back in the 80s – the food was basic, but plentiful and delicious,” she said.

“The decor was pure 1950s with formica tables and matching steel framed chairs.

“Fast forward to 2023 and what a difference – the old ambience has been replaced with funky bench seating and huge arched openings in the walls, and with shabby chic painting there’s a feeling of being transported to a hidden piazza in Rome.

“The service could have been warmer and the waitperson clearly didn’t like our request to be seated somewhere else, but my potato agnolotti ($30) was a real hit – soft pillows of pasta wrapped lovingly around a creamy potato, leek and cheese filling, and drizzled with a rich cheese sauce. It was so good I could have licked the plate, or at least wished for a larger serve.”

My veal saltimbocca comprised of four thin veal cutlets, topped with prosciutto and sage, in a light moreish sauce ($35). No sides with it, so I got some potatoes ($9).

The veal with perfectly cooked and had a lovely sweet/salty tang that kept you coming back for more. It was a light and fragrant dish; perfect for the last throes of summer.

The big mound of roast potatoes, which I shared with D’Anger, were tasty enough but slightly over and a tad dry. Vin Populi is a high quality addition to the Freo dining scene that drags Joe Dolce, screaming and shouting, into the modern era.

Vin Populi
11 High Street, Fremantle


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