Popolo Beirut: Italy Never Felt Nearer

I know what you’re thinking. Trust me, the very same thought raced through my head when I learned Popolo was opening in Beirut. Another Italian restaurant?! We may as well rename the Lebanese capital “Little Italy.”

In the past few years, Lebanon has experienced an unprecedented surge of pizzeria and ristorante. Some are mere meters from each other—Cavalli Caffè and La Cucina readily come to mind. Others barely lasted one season—Basilio, L’Oca Matta, Villaggio, Signor Sassi. And still others like Aliacci and Fiona’s shuttered despite years of being in business.


Authentic Neopolitan pizza has become all the rage in Beirut


But the past has never been a source of determent for adamant restaurateurs in Lebanon. They persist in spite of the numerous failed examples set by their predecessors.

On rare occasion, however, that tenacity can be a good thing, a blessing. Authenticity is preserved. Creativity is injected. And the perch—setting, ambiance, view—is just perfect.

Popolo, literally “people” in Italian, is one such godsend.

When you first enter the restaurant, which occupies a seafront space in a newly-renovated Ain Mreisseh complex, you’re drawn to the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows, solid wooden tables, and a bustling open kitchen. The interior soothes the soul, with a counter displaying the house’s colorful, fresh-made pasta; salumi suspended from an overhead rack; and a fridge lined with homemade limoncello. 

Italy has indeed arrived to Lebanon.


Family-style dining

Fresh homemade pasta

Salumi (cured meats) suspended from an overhead rack

Salumi

A wooden crate of fresh imported mushrooms, including portobello, enoki, and chanterelle


As you start to explore the menu, neatly printed and bound inside a pale-blue canvas booklet, the waiter brings you a paper bag. Gently open it to discover warm rosemary focaccia sprinkled with coarse sea salt, in addition to house-baked grissini breadsticks. Pour extra-virgin olive oil onto a saucer, and let that dense cornbread-like focaccia soak up nature’s liquid gold. With one sensual bite, you know you're in for an extraordinary experience.


Home-baked focaccia and grissini


Starters begin their rapid descent on the table. First, the Involtini Di Melanzane (18,000 LL), a casserole rendition of baked eggplant slices wrapped around ricotta and mozzarella and flanked by a chunky tomato sauce.


A casserole of eggplant slices filled with ricotta and mozzarella


The Patatine Al Tartufo (10,000 LL) are slender allumette fries piled high and drizzled with a creamy, herby truffle sauce.


Truffle allumettes


Seafood lovers will have difficulty resisting marinated chunks of grilled octopus on a bed of frisée lettuce tossed in a lemon-mustard grain dressing (Il Polipo, 24,000 LL).


Il Polipo: grilled octopus in lemon-mustard dressing


The fresh mozzarella dishes radiate with resplendence. La Buffala (31,000 LL) floats on a medley of marinated mushrooms--chanterelle and enoki--as well as
artichoke, olives, tomatoes, and pepper horns all showered with pesto. 


Buffalo mozzarella on a pesto-drizzled nest of vegetables


The burrata (36,000 LL), a supple mozzarella ball gushing with a silky core, comes atop a crispy sheet of lasagna cushioned with frisée and cherry tomatoes. A dash of olive oil elevates it to euphoric proportions.


A ball of burrata on a fried lasagna sheet

Don’t overlook the pizza offering, particularly the Vegetariana di Patate (24,000 LL) fashioned from potato flour. The consistency and taste are rather distinctive, donning the pizza a robustness which traditional wheat flour simply cannot impart.


Vegetarian pizza crafted from potato flour

I had been acutely anticipating the Cotoletta alla Milanese (48,000 LL), whose very exact preparation would serve as a test of Popolo’s genuine Italian cooking. To my amusement, the breaded veal cutlet boasts the bone-in trademark you see nowhere else among the slew of Italian restaurants in Lebanon. The meat, too, is juicy and tender to the bone, eliminating the need for lemon.


Cotoletta alla Milanese

Cotoletta alla Milanese

The menu could benefit from a selection of contorni, those flavorful side dishes that round out meat and fish main courses. I’d have loved to see boiled or fried chicory (cicoria), fleshy white beans, or sautéed broccoli in olive oil and garlic to complement my veal escalope or others' beef and salmon fillets.

What’s la dolce vita without the dolce? The unanimous crowd-pleaser is Popolo’s Calzone al Forno (16,000 LL), a folded-over pizza dough liberally loaded with chocolate paste and whole hazelnuts. Perhaps banana coins or strawberry slivers with fresh mint leaves could add a burst of freshness to all that gooey cocoa goodness. 

Brownie points if Popolo can create and start serving the quintessentially Italian pistachio cream found in cornetti and other pastries. Imagine the silky stuff piped atop a chocolate-shortbread tart. Now that would definitely be a first in Lebanon!


Calzone al Forno, stuffed with chocolate paste and hazelnuts


Popolo's all about light, fresh, and healthy Italian cuisine--don't expect any cream-laden pasta or oil-sopping pizza. What you will find is Italy on Lebanese shores, literally, and I'd venture to say this one's anchored for good.

Popolo
Ain Mreisseh
+961 1 366 222

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