Sometimes when you take two good things and put them together, you get something better. Other times, the result is worse. Let’s use Kanye West as an example. On one end of the spectrum, you have Watch the Throne, and toward the other end there’s that kindergarten-birthday-party song he did with Rihanna and Paul McCartney. Popina is somewhere in between.
This restaurant does a mashup of Southern and Italian cuisine, and while it isn’t quite Kanye and Jay riding around in a Maybach with the doors chopped off, we’d say the combination works pretty well. Here, they make hybrid-sounding things like pappardelle with ham hock ragu and arancini that come with honey and butter. They also make a spicy chicken Milanese that tastes like something you’d get at a KFC drive-through in heaven.
The only issue is, none of these things are as original as they sound. They’re good, and they should all be on your table - but they don’t necessarily taste like dishes you’ve never had before. And that’s probably because, in the end, this place only feels about 10% Southern - which means that it’s essentially a very good neighborhood Italian place.
So whether or not you should go to Popina is really going to depend on what neighborhood you live in. If you’re in or around the Columbia Waterfront District (the little area between Brooklyn Heights and Red Hook), you should have this place in your rotation. If you live elsewhere, just know that the closest subway station is about 14 blocks away (and that the G train might be involved).
You should also know that the space is pretty small. Sure, there’s a big backyard where you can have a drink while you wait for a table - but, for some reason, they don’t serve food out there. So maybe don’t plan any group dinners here. This place is, however, kid-friendly, and nothing costs over $30. So if you happen to be in the area, try it for a weeknight meal or a more-casual date night. Just be aware that, while this a great Italian spot, the Southern elements are mostly singing backup.
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photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Cavatelli With Nduja And Ricotta
We aren’t sure what makes this dish Southern, but it’s probably our favorite pasta here. The sauce is a little spicy, with some ricotta on top and spreadable sausage mixed in.
Pappardelle With Ham Hock Ragu
Ham hock ragu is similar to other ragus, just with more ham hock. Unless you’re expecting a thick, heavy sauce, you’ll appreciate this.
Hot Chicken Milanese
The number one reason to come here. This should be on your table every time. It’s crispy and comforting, and you can always share it with someone if you don’t want to eat a big piece of what is essentially boneless fried chicken on your own.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be a part your life (and the portions are kind of small), but if you want some clam toast, it’s a perfectly good option.
These are risotto balls with honey and butter, and it’s pretty impossible to dislike them.
There will be a fish option or two on the menu when you come here, and you should know that the other things are better. Although if you’re trying to be healthy, the swordfish they serve is a decent option.