By Any Other Name…

It doesn’t sound fancy, but Pop’s For Italian serves up extremely well-prepared Italian dishes paired with an ambitious wine program
Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Sometimes, a name just doesn’t match up with what you expect.

So it is with Pop’s For Italian in Ferndale, which offers solid Italian food in an atmosphere that is fun, and with what may be the most ambitious wine list by the glass in the metropolitan area.

Both the wine and food — and also the place itself — are greatly more extravagant than what I expected from a place named Pop’s.

Altogether, the wine program has 32 wines available. And the restaurant serves them in Riedel glassware, the Austrian maker of what many consider the finest wine glasses in the world.

Pop’s is the latest venture of the Kramer Restaurant Group, which also created One-Eyed Betty’s and Rosie O’Grady’s, among others. The name of the restaurant was chosen by owner Brian Kramer to honor his late grandfather, according to Pop’s manager, Liz Richards.

Pop’s sits in the Nine Mile Road space in the heart of Ferndale that formerly housed Buffalo Wild Wings and Twisted Shamrock.

The interior is vast, due largely to its soaring 25-foot ceiling, the kind of spatial device architects seem to love in restaurants. The height has bit of the feel of being inside an airplane hangar, but with good food and wine.

Height is a practical way of adding loftiness and modernity to a casual dining location, and also allows the overhead space to handle the utility lines, water, plumbing, electrical, and the silver serpentine heat and air conditioning conduits. But it still leaves sufficient comfortable height to drop the hall’s lighting grid below them all.

The walls at Pop’s are covered with whimsical gigantic murals: Botero-style cartoonish allusions to old Dutch masterpieces, such as a smiling, bosomy, big-cheeked woman in a medieval head scarf; a jumble of gold, velvety curtains; and a chubby peasant couple twirling in mid-dance.

In the middle of the dining area stands an impressively large reproduction of the Statue of Liberty.

It all works just fine, as weird as it may sound.

The focal point of the restaurant is a U-shaped bar with a white marble top, behind which is the most extraordinary of wine racks, vaulting up 20 feet toward the ceiling and accessed by the bar staff with one of those huge moveable library archive ladders.

The bar is the nerve center of the massive by-the-glass offerings, made possible by a Napa Technology wine preservation system. It pulls wine out of the bottle and injects argon in the space left by the withdrawn liquid. The staff can pour by-the-glass selections without air ever touching the wine in the bottle. The system keeps them totally fresh.

The wines are from California, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand. Among the more esoteric choices is a pinot noir from Becker Estate in Germany, a Bernabeleva “Camino de Navahorros” grenache from Spain, and a sauvignon blanc from Waterfire in Torch Lake. There’s also an Abbazia di Novacella, a dry white Italian made from kerner, a grape rarely seen here.

Wines are also sold by the bottle. Pop’s also offers 25-ounce carafes of inexpensive table wines.

In addition to VP of Operations Beth Hussey’s main list of red, white, and rosé wines, there is a side list titled “Wine In Waiting,” which are yet another 32 choices sold by the bottle, in waiting to make their way to the main list. Rounding out the list are nine sparkling wines, two of which are always available by the glass.

The menu is respectful of old Italian classic dishes and recipes. It doesn’t deviate into weird combinations: no pizza with apricot, chicken breast, and kale here. Everything on executive chef James Henry’s menu is extremely well prepared and complements the monster wine system selection.

As seems to be popular these days, the menu is fairly brief, starting with a list of offerings from what could possibly be Detroit’s pizza mega-oven. Our server told us it cooks a pizza in about two minutes.

Imported from Italy, the oven burns at a temperature of 1,000 degrees. For a little perspective, most pizza ovens run at 500-600 degrees. A steel foundry like AK Steel at Ford’s Rouge Center, for example, will generally burn from 1,600-2,300 degrees.

There are 12 pizza choices, all right down the middle of a traditional Italian selection: marinara, pepperoni, prosciutto, sausage, etc.

If you try Pop’s, you might want to pick from among the dishes that I found to be worthwhile. First, the simple burrata and prosciutto with arugula and bread was utterly sinful, thanks to the freshness and delicate creaminess of the burrata, just barely this side of the runny stage.

I also enjoyed the classic fried Roman artichoke heart with aioli and lemon. There is something about this simple dish that works, as it does here, by taking two seemingly opposite flavors and pulling them together into a union of flavors.

I also advise trying the savory spicy sausage with Hungarian peppers (pepperoncini-sized) and a slightly hot, red, dense tomato sauce.

From among the main courses, I picked the totally delightful pappardelle with the creamy and restrained Bolognese. Also to be recommended are the veal picatta and chicken Parmesan.

The menu at Pop’s also offers a 14-ounce beef filet with mashed potatoes, a bone-in pork chop, and a whole fish.

There is also an array of pasta offerings, a serving of those “little purse” pasta, sometimes called handkerchiefs, served with pesto, Parmesan, and olive oil; linguini with clams sauce; pasta puttanesca with the traditional anchovy, olives, and capers; a spaghetti carbonara; and sausage gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cream sauce.

Pop’s for Italian was quite a surprise. Overall it is a good cut above most of its competitors in the wide array of daily Italian eating choices around town.

Give it a shot.

280 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-268-4806. D Tues.-Sun. 
Christopher Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email:

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