It’s hard not to get a bit carried away talking about Vin Populi. Perhaps it was the particularly lovely day that we visited, admiring the Fremantle streets in the late afternoon light and enjoying the salty breeze of the Doctor – but we also suspect that even without an especially idyllic afternoon, the restaurant would hold its own.
Vin Populi marks a new era for the High Street premises that for nearly 70 years was home to the iconic Roma Restaurant, later known as Roma Cucina.
“It was actually a restaurant since 1954, set up by Frank and Nella [Abrugiato] in the ‘50s,” owner Emma Ferguson tells us, showing us around on the same afternoon they officially open to the public. “From what I hear, it pumped! It was the party place: Italian tunes, great times.”
The restaurant was so beloved, there were reportedly lines out the door for tables, with everyday folk rubbing shoulders with the likes of everyone from David Bowie to Bob Hawke. After changing hands over the ensuing decades, the lease found its way back to the Abrugiatos in 2016, when it was taken over by Luciana Abrugiato-Dunn and her husband Terry.
“Luci and Terry have retired now but we’re so privileged to take this restaurant over from them – it was immaculate. Clearly it’s in their DNA to make sure people had a great time!”
Emma and her partner Dan – they’re also the proprietors of Northbridge go-to No Mafia and CBD fine diner Balthazar – have honoured the legacy of the space while putting their own distinctive spin on things.
“A love letter to Italy!”
With its exposed plaster walls, mosaic-tiled floors, softly fluttering linen valance curtains, and the jaunty sounds of ’50s Italian pop in the air, Vin Populi wouldn’t be out of place in a Fellini film. Sitting and enjoying a Garibaldi (“The drink of the summer, at least for me! It’s a classic Italian drink from the ‘50s. Campari, fresh OJ, shaken to bits so it’s nice and foamy.”), you could almost imagine Marcello Mastroianni sauntering in the door.
And yet, it also feels incredibly now. It’s fresh, it’s relaxed, it’s a bit sexy but also charmingly friendly. Bring your date, bring your nonna, bring just yourself.
Not to get too romantic about it all, but we feel at once like we could be Monica Vitti, meandering through that Noto plaza in L’Avventura – but also Aubrey Plaza as she recreates the same scene over 60 years later in The White Lotus. It may have just opened, but it feels like it’s been there forever.
In the same vein, the menu offers a timeless, flexible approach to dining – neatly scrawled on blackboards, it allows for a constant update of both plates and wines by the glass. (In a testament to the operator’s attention to detail, just about every seat in the restaurant has a clear line of sight to a blackboard – no neck craning or menu-reconnaissance required.)
“You can just come in for a vino and a plate of olives after work, or if you’re seeing a show, pop in for a cheeky dinner afterwards or a negroni, or you can have Sunday lunch,” Emma explains.
“We make fresh pasta every day and the antipasti game is strong – it’s delicious, think Italian deli or a little Italian picnic. Really good cured meats sliced to order, bocconcini from the guys at La Delizia out in Vic Park, they make the best cheese ever, Freo octopus… And then fresh made pasta, very yummy, and then we’ve got the meat: roast lamb, chicken, and porchetta. Tonight we’ve got a saltimbocca special.”
This easy breezy dining will be available seven days a week from 4PM, plus lunch service on the weekends. With an aim to extend the alfresco once in the swing of things, Friday lunches are also on the cards.
For their official opening afternoon, both Emma and Dan seem almost unnervingly relaxed. Their sense of calm can of course be attributed to their extensive experience, but we suspect it also has a lot to do with not just their confidence in their offering, but in their staff – most of whom have come from No Mafia and Balthazar.
“We have Sylvia, who’s a weapon. You would have seen her at No Mafia, she’s overseeing both. And her husband Leo – she’s from Tuscany and Leo’s from Lazio, he’s in the kitchen, he oversees both. They’ll be down here a lot to start off.”
“We’re really lucky – in the kitchen right now there’s two guys from Balthazar that are guns, and have worked with us for a long time, and then our floor team we’ve got four guns from No Mafia that have moved down.”
“It’s an amazing team, all round – Dan’s really good at service training, I do the wine training, we’ve got an awesome wine team. I just think, there’s more people to train, more people to bring into the industry. Our big focus has always been about providing really good drinks, really good food and really good service. So the more people we can get on board with that, I think, the better for Perth.”
“The people who are going to restaurants love food, so they deserve people staff who love food. That’s the goal – happy people all round!”
Vin Populi is located at 9-13 High Street, Fremantle.
All images, except for the exterior photo, by Duncan Wright.