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Italy on the river: Pop Café

By: Bronwyn Sloan Posted: January-01-2006 in
Bronwyn Sloan

Tucked away under the FCC is a favorite haunt for expatriates seeking Italian comfort food with a touch of class. Pop Café da Giorgio, owned, as the name suggests, by Italian Giorgio, is cool and classy, but its prices are very friendly on the pocket.

Pizza, lasagna and home made pasta are billed as the specialties of the house, and an impressive wine list leaning towards Italian vineyards top tempt diners from the blackboard of specials as they walk in.

The menu has recently expanded as Giorgio tries to spice up the traditional menu with more specials and exotic tastes, but the old favorites are still there - Spaghetti Bolognese, Carbonara and Pesto. Specials such as Scaloppine al Limone, made with succulent Australian veal, and Linguine al Polippete, with baby octopus, are relative newcomers.

We started with Bruschetta ($4) - six pieces of toasted French bread generously spread with diced tomato, garlic, basil and capers and dripping with fragrant olive oil. The serving easily takes the edge off two appetites, and the fresh ingredients exploded with flavor in the mouth.

The friendly and attentive waitresses speak excellent English and have an impressive knowledge of the menu. While we were torn between Linguine Spartacus ($6), an intriguing combination of eggplant, olives and tomato sauce which is topped with feta cheese, or Linguine al Granchio ($7) with crab, tomato, garlic and parsley, the waitress paused for a minute.

"The Spartacus is very popular, especially for vegetarians," she said, "but if you like crab, el Granchio is excellent. We buy the crab fresh from the market every morning and take the flesh out ourselves."

And indeed, Linguine el Granchio made an impressive entrance. The linguine was perfectly al dente, the sauce rich and in wonderful proportion to the pasta, and large pieces of succulent, sweet crab tumbled richly through it. With a few grinds of fresh, pungent Kampot black pepper from the restaurant's giant pepper grinder the dish truly came alive.

My colleague's choice of Lasagna Bolognaise ($7), by contrast, was not so impressive. Looking more like a Calzone Pizza than a layered pasta, it lacked zest - almost as if the chef had looked with distain upon this standard, instead sacrificing its finer details in favor of its more imaginative cousins.

But with the help of a few Beer Lao ($1) and a glass of Grappa ($3) the initial disappointment was forgotten. Sometimes the basic dishes are the hardest to make great, but it was still a generous serving of very enjoyable food.

We pondered the menu thinking about what to try at our next visit - the 4 Stagioni woodfired pizza ($7.50) perhaps, with tomato, real Italian mozzarella, ham, olives, mushroom and artichokes, or the excellent Gnocchi the restaurant is locally famous for - light and fluffy gnocchi coated in a simple sauce of gorgonzola and cream ($6).

For vegetarians and lovers of a little spice in their life, the Penne Arrabbiata ($5) comes highly recommended by regulars. In fact, Pop Café has a lot to offer vegetarians, although vegans have a much narrower choice - Giorgio does not skimp on the cheese in his establishment. And although spacious once inside the narrow entrance, the restaurant is big on glass, with glass jugs of water on every table and even glass tabletops, so although the staff are extremely child friendly, the furnishings are not and it may not be the place to take a rambunctious toddler.

We opted to skip the salads with our meal, although the emphasis on fresh ingredients here does bring the best out in even the unassuming Mista ($3.5). Instead, we settled on freshly home baked bread. And the generous servings left us dreaming about the small but select dessert menu - Fruit Tart, Tiramisu Venetian-style, Chocolate Mousse or Ice Cream (all between $1.50 and $3) - but unable to find room to fit them. A glass of sweet Amaretto ($3) rounded the meal off nicely instead.

Pop Café is one of the capital's more established restaurants, and it deserves to be. It won Restaurant of the Year in 2006 and proudly boasts that it is a Heritage Friendly restaurant. It's central location at 371 Sisowath Quay makes it an attractive venue to head to after the FCC happy hour ends at 7pm, and the restaurant does deliver. Call to book on 012 562 892.

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