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Popolo Italian Restaurant, South Bank

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by West End Girl (subscribe)
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Published July 20th 2012
Update December 21st 2015
I have visited Popolo again a couple of times recently and I have to say that I did not feel that the food was of the same standard as when I reviewed it originally. The menu is the same but I can't promise that the quality will be as I reviewed it here.

Popolo Italian Restaurant at South Bank has become my new favourite for 'special occasion' outings with friends and family.

Popolo (Italian for 'people') has been beckoning me ever since it opened late last year. One of the new restaurants in South Bank's River Quay area (along with The Jetty, Cove, and Stokehouse), it's in a great location and offered what looked like an interesting Italian menu with quite a few twists.

I first headed along with a group of four one Saturday night about six weeks ago. We were dining early, but the restaurant was busy already, and we were glad that we'd booked. We were seated at a table inside, but still had a good view of the river by night.

We were also able to fully appreciate the contemporary-cum-rustic decor inside -- think polished concrete with distressed Italian posters dotted around the walls and fresh herbs and pasta in jars. Could be hokey but actually works really well.

popolo, italian restaurants, south bank brisbane photo
Chocolate donut dessert
As we heard from our gorgeous waitress (everyone who works here seems to be both beautiful and very nice), Popolo is a tasting restaurant, where dishes are designed to be shared among the group. Sort of like tapas, Italian style, but much more substantial. While the menu would work fine for just one or two people, with a group of four we were happy to combine our thoughts.

We began with two pizzas chosen from a list of six traditional versions. Our Margherita ($17.50) was crispy, with good buffalo mozzarella and a flavoursome tomato sauce. The Pepperoni ($19) was also good, with a much better class of sausage than you get at most pizzerias.
Popolo by night
We then moved onto our mains: oven baked trout ($32), and the famed Kingaroy suckling pig ($35 for four slices) -- which has been mentioned in many other reviews. To accompany them, we chose truffled polenta ($9.50) and mixed salad leaves ($6).

The trout was perfectly cooked, and a light and lean option in a menu that otherwise tended towards the richer side of things. It came with a sweet capsicum relish and preserved lemon that complemented the mild flesh (and each other) very well.
Popolo by day
The pig lived up to its reputation, with thick, tender slices of pork (complete with crackling), accompanied by an interesting peach compote and anchovy sauce. The polenta was soft and satisfying, and only the salad disappointed. It's just-a-teensy-bit-tired green leaves could have come from any second-rate kitchen in town.

We finished with chocolate donuts ($14) and strawberry canoli with sweet basil gelato (also $14) -- each thoughtfully divided into four for sharing. Both were suitably decadent, the chocolate running from the centre of the donuts and the canoli light, soft and freshly made.
The famous suckling pig (two slices down)
On balance, then, we'd had a great meal, and enjoyed wonderful service throughout. We were so impressed that we returned last weekend, this time for a Sunday lunch with eight family members ranging in age from eight years old to well over seventy.

On a glorious South Bank day, Popolo was even busier than on our last visit. This time we ordered some of the same dishes, but were also able to try far more with our larger group. Our starters on this occasion included the ciabatta and oil ($6), pan-fried sardines ($9), crispy whitebait ($9), and risotto balls ($15).
Arancini (risotto balls)
For mains, we ordered the pig once more, but also the roast chicken with truffle butter ($38 for a whole chicken), tiger prawns with fennel ($26 for four) and the house gnocchi with sausage ($22). Grilled asparagus ($10) rounded out our meal.

As on our last visit, almost everything was very good, with rich and interesting flavours. The only minor disappointments were the asparagus, and the fig and mascarpone tart ($14) that we ordered at dessert time, both of which were slightly overcooked.

But these really were minor disappointments in what was otherwise a very enjoyable dining experience. As well as its good food, Popolo offers genuine hospitality -- sadly all too rare in Queensland's 'hospitality' industry. From my first phone call to book, through being seated, discussing the menu, and dealing with a few of our special requests, the manager and wait-staff were unfailingly smiling and seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The prices aren't cheap but aren't outrageously expensive either, and the servings are a reasonable size. On both occasions, we paid around $40 per person, not including drinks. The menu is varied enough to satisfy most, even those like me who seek lower-fat and healthy options (the trout made a perfect choice). And the surroundings also cater for a wide spectrum of customers -- you can feel comfortable in jeans eating pizza, or dressed to the nines for a Saturday night dinner.

While our experience suggests that Popolo's junior chefs need to work a bit on the restaurant's sides and desserts, their kings of the kitchen are doing a great job. Throw in a magic location and good service, and you've got all the elements of a great meal.

PS I was particularly impressed that my green tea was made on high-quality fresh leaves. This is one of the few times in a Brisbane restaurant this year when I haven't been given a bog-standard teabag. (And the coffee-drinkers were happy, too.)
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Why? For good Italian cuisine and hospitality
When: Dinner 7 days from 5pm, Lunch from 11.30am every day except Monday
Phone: 3846 7784
Where: River Quay, South Bank (Goodwill Bridge end of parklands)
Cost: Moderate
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