While the tiny, tricky-to-access Columbia Waterfront District may have supported some of the borough’s longest-running establishments (centenarian Ferdinandos, 15-year-old Alma, 12-year-old Petite Crevette), and convinced patrons to walk a mile from the nearest subway to wait two hours for vinegar cocktails and fish sauce wings, the neighborhood is anything but a sure bet for restaurants. TV infamy wasn’t enough to buoy Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen, and though Andy Ricker may be the beneficiary of the aforementioned lines, he flew too close to the sun by installing a trio of competing concepts within the same one-block radius.
Thankfully for shipwrecked locals, it hasn’t kept entrepreuners from trying their luck on the capricious, river-abutting enclave. And so far, Popina (settled in Ricker’s original Pok Pok location) may be just what the neighborhood ordered—ostensibly focused on rustic Italian fare, while still managing to fill a hot chicken void, vacated by Carla Hall.
Referencing ancient Roman everyman taverns, simply furnished with tables and stools and specializing in straightforward food and affordable wines, James O’Brien and chef Chris McDade’s “popina” falls within the contemporary Brooklyn playbook. Although owing to the former’s Georgian roots, their inn boasts an interesting southern undercurrent, by way of Carolina gold rice arancini, chocolate chess pie with cherries, and hot chicken Milanese, paired with radicchio and ranch dressing.
Reflecting their joint time at Danny Meyer’s Maialino, the fare is folksy but thoughtful, to complement a polished yet affable vibe. McDade rolls trenette and cavatelli on the wooden tabletops before service (to be later anointed with sungold tomatoes and bianco sardo, and nduja-enriched tomato sauce and ricotta, respectively), and starters like clam bruschetta, burrata and pesto, and pork meatballs and gravy go down easy with wine (O’Brien’s beyond Pinot Grigio list ranges from $11 verdicchios to $13 montepulcianos and $17 pours of grillo de bartoli vignaverde).
And while it eschews some of the raunchier aspects of a true, traditional popina, the spacious backyard will eventually be home to (subdued) bocce-fueled bacchanals, augmented by plates of jalapeno and guanciale-flecked pasta, glasses of nebbiolo and Italianate wings.
It’s a good thing the CWD newcomer keeps things classy, or one might find traveling carousers collapsed upon cobblestones on their journey back to the subway.