POPOLO on Newcastle’s Pilgrim Street has long been one of the city’s most popular nightspots and somewhere I’d always perceived as a great place to finish your night when you want to swap the lager-fuelled Diamond Strip for a more relaxed vibe.
As it’s known primarily as a bar – and held in high regard by cocktail connoisseurs – it’s not somewhere I’d previously considered for a meal. But I’m happy to say that after sampling the new extended menu, the food is as much a draw as the expertly- prepared drinks.
Having recently celebrated its 10th birthday, the greater emphasis on food is a natural progression for Popolo, often described as ‘New York bar meets Italian coffee shop’.
The place was originally established by the Italian De Giorgis family, but is now owned by Popolo Leisure, which also runs the Riverbar and Ristorante Fiume in Washington as well as the San Lorenzo in Gosforth.
As extra seating booths have been added to the raised back part of the bar (which has also been roped off VIP style, presumably to keep drinkers in the main bar area) it felt more like a separate dining experience.
The decor has a retro feel, much like the bars I used to frequent when I lived in Milan. They even have an authentic Milanese-style Aperitivo, where free bar snacks are offered alongside discounted drinks from 5-7pm.
Settling into our little booth, which could comfortably seat eight, it felt very private and cosy, perfect for an intimate tete a tete when you don’t want to be overheard. Surrounded by twinkling lights, which hopefully weren’t just for Christmas, and with Sophia Loren smiling down at us from a framed picture, the ambience was duly set.
The service was very friendly and efficient too, but not too overbearing. Our bottle of house red, a very palatable Italian Merlot, was very reasonable at £12.95.
When choosing from the menu, I would definitely recommend the small plates and pizette (mini pizza). Describing them as small probably does them a disservice as they’re certainly more substantial than tapas. Around two-thirds of the bigger plates are also available as small plates too.
They range in price from £2.95 to £4.95 – yet for just £12 you can pick any four of these dishes, which is excellent value and enough for two people. If you opt for the most expensive dishes, you’re effectively getting £20 worth of food for £12. A big tick on price is of course meaningless unless the quality is up to scratch too – and Popolo gets two big ticks here.
Not realising the four small plates would be enough, we’d also chosen an antipasti sharing platter – basically a simple, rustic peasant’s dish of ham, salami, parma ham, olives, cheese, artichoke and toasted fresh bread on a wooden board.
While hardly taxing for a child to prepare, let alone a chef, the ingredients were clearly of a good quality, particularly the salami. For £9.50 though it was a little pricey compared to their £12 special deal, and an extra soft blue cheese such as gorgonzola would have hit the spot rather than just a semi -hard provolone.
The first of our four dishes was simply pitta bread with three dips – a black olive tapenade, hummus and tomato and pepper salsa, at £3.95. The tapenade was particularly good, although the dips ran out before the strips of pitta bread did. It would also make a great bar snack if you’ve popped in for an early evening drink.
Next up – although all four dishes came together – was the fritto misto at £4.95. This generous seafood platter included deep fried prawns, baby octopus, squid, cuttlefish and whitebait with lemon mayonnaise. Although the prawns were big and juicy, the rest of the fish was somewhat overpowered by the same breadcrumb coating and so this was the only dish that didn’t get completely polished off. It’s also available as a big plate for £9.50.
We picked two more dishes from the pizette section – one topped with wild mushroom and gorgonzola at £3.95 and the other topped with Parma ham, rocket and parmesan at £4.50. Both were delicious and had a generous base of tomato and hunks of mozzarella, but it was the cheaper of the two that scored top marks for depth of flavour. It must have been that gorgonzola hit I was craving.
Separately the four dishes would have cost £17.35, so £12 was an absolute bargain for the amount of food in front of us. As food is served till 8pm on Friday/Saturday and till 9pm on weekdays, you can benefit from this great price longer than most happy hour deals too.
If you fancy a full-sized pizza, you can simply upgrade any of the pizette for just £3 extra, while chips on the side are just £1.50. There’s also a range of ciabatta and focaccia from £3.50 and a couple of piadina at £5.95.
We finished off our meals with cocktails from the exhaustive list – a gorgeous and refreshing amaretto cooler (£6.25) with Disaronno, orange, cranberry and lime for me, and an equally top-notch Violet Martini (£6.50) for him, which tasted of those childhood Parma Violets with a kick. Bizarrely the cocktails were more expensive than our food, had we dispensed with the antipasti sharing platter.
By putting more emphasis on food, Popolo has redressed the balance perfectly. It still has all the popular drinks nights – such as Mojito Wednesdays and Prohibition Thursdays – but the extended menu will certainly attract more foodies who are feeling the pinch too.