Flavio Carnevale and Fabio Dore can't help it. They want nothing more than to sit you down, pour you a drink, feed you up and let you in on a little glimpse of their vision of how things should be done. It's an image drawn in large part from Basilicata and Sardinia, the respective regions of Italy they sprang from, but some of the postcards stuck around the edges of the frame are postmarked Sicily, Campania and Puglia. It's a picture of a world where hospitality is second nature, and good things to eat and drink provide the glow around which friends and family gladly commune. It's la dolce vita, in short, and then some.
The pair met working at Fratelli Paradiso, but it was a bottle of wine, Parallelo 41, that got them talking seriously about opening a restaurant of their own, and they've picked the 41st parallel north as the notional cut-off for their theme. It's a line which connects the dots of their places of birth, and keeping the emphasis of the restaurant on the food and drink of Italy south of that line gives it crisp focus.
You can forget the red-sauce clichés now. Sure, there's a bit of tomato on the menu, and an excellent pizza section, but the idea that there's not much more than that to southern Italian cooking is quickly blown to smithereens by a succession of dishes distinguished as much by their unfamiliarity as by how well they're cooked.
Frittelle di alghe should, by rights, become one of Campania's most famous culinary exports. In the Popolo rendering, taken from the drinks menu, they're fat little dumplings made by frying a dough that's shot through with seaweed, and, along with a few hand-cut slices from the leg of aged ham on the bar, they're God's gift to white wine, as copasetic with a startlingly dry sparkling from the slopes of Mount Etna as they are with a glass of salty, minerally something from Sardinia. There's a primal quality to the sausages and cime di rapa, meanwhile, something almost magical about the meaty snags, the slightly spicy greens and the smoke of a little scamorza cheese meeting in a heavy iron saucepan. It's sausage, too, that enriches gnocchetti Sardi, little pasta curls mingled with tomato, the surprise whisper of saffron, rocket and a sheaf of pecorino shavings. So far, so squisito.
Beyond saying it's great stuff and not exactly like anything else in Sydney right now, it's hard to pigeonhole the cooking. You could read the relatively spare plating and the fact that most dishes are edited right down to their essentials as rustic, modern or both. Quail, split, salted, skewered and grilled for maximum golden-browning, set on a warm plate with just-tender, barely oiled chicory and a slice of lemon, for instance. Rather than a pile of shredded meat, slow-cooked lamb shoulder comes out as slices of a larger piece that's been stuffed with pecorino and mint and topped with braised artichokes. With a side of silverbeet, and maybe some baby endive tossed with pine nuts and slightly sweet dressing made with fig must, it's Sunday lunch made splendid. The lines are clean, but the flavours are full.
What's truly distinctive at Popolo is the consistent hitting of marks: the hot things are hot, the cold things are cold, and things crunch and squish where they're supposed to. Dried pasta is al dente, fresh pasta sighs on the plate. Small, neat gnocchi, clearly the work of a practised hand, are light in their tomato and cheese bath. Schiaffoni are described on the menu as large penne from Basilicata, but, as the vehicle for a rabbit and white wine ragù, they're more like short, wide ribbons, almost like ravioli without their filling. It's finger-lickin' good, and an unmistakably deft pairing.
Chef Orazio D'Elia hails from Naples, so perhaps it's not so surprising that his talents seem particularly incandescent when he's dealing with dough. The pizza section of the menu, certainly, is far from an afterthought. The Principessa deploys basil, buffalo mozzarella and tomato to correct effect, while sweet house-made ricotta and fior di latte brighten the Donzelletta, a winning potato-and-sausage combo.
There's something generous about Popolo. "The chef is making something my family used to eat on Sundays - would you like to try it?" says Dore one afternoon. Out comes a zuppa Gallurese, a dish from Gallura in Sardinia of bread, mint and peretta cheese moistened with lamb broth and browned in the oven. It's really only soup in the sense that it's served in a bowl, but eaten with a knife and fork rather than a spoon or not, it's a profoundly steadying and reassuring dish.
What of the room? The design is clean without being cold, polished without being showy. All in all it fits with the Fergus Henderson theory that a good restaurant is like a stage and the best ornamentation is a room full of happy people eating and drinking and having a good time. The bi-fold glass will, in warmer days, throw the whole restaurant open to the leafy courtyard, but for now it serves to keep out the chill. There's buzz here, but the more lasting impression is of warmth, not attitude. Everything, from the way the staff move through the room to the way the food is plated to the way it's placed on the table, speaks of assurance. Almost everyone who works here, it seems, is Italian. Maybe it really is in the blood.
Wine is a large but seamlessly integrated part of the equation. The drinks list is elegant but approachable, and completely Italian, from the thoughtful apéritivi to the Gaudianello acqua minerale to the beers. Bottlings from below the 41st parallel (including some particularly interesting stuff from Sicily, Puglia and Campania) make up the bulk of the list, but they're not rigid about it, listing Ospiti (or "visitors") from all over the north. And if all this sounds like so much cork-dork talk, don't fret: the wine guys speak English as well as Oenglish.
Desserts at Popolo, for me, are a pretext for staying that little bit longer as much as anything else. If you're thinking about delving into the excellent collection of Marsalas offered by the glass, the flourless chocolate tart is a fine table-mate; if you'd prefer to explore the shared culinary history of Basilicata and Sardinia, go the seadas, cheese-filled pastries, fried and served drizzled with abbamele, a reduction of honey and pollen.
What's impressed me most about Popolo is the way that each time you peel back a layer of quality, there's another one beneath. This is one of those rare restaurants you can recommend to friends safe in the knowledge that whichever direction they take - a boozy lunch with family, a book and a glass of wine at the bar on a Tuesday night, a hot date - the front and back of house teams won't drop a stitch. They're on it without being in your face, they're informed and observant without being overbearing. It's an unshowy confidence that's quietly seductive and easy to love. It all adds up to a neighbourhood restaurant worth going out of your way for.