Vin Populi Lands in Freo with ’60s Italian Spirit and a Menu Packed with Hits

It might be the first foray Emma Ferguson and Dan Morris have made into Fremantle, but the vibes are high and the flavours epic at their retro-styled Italian wine bar in Freo.
With handmade pasta, a rotating wine list and a ’60s feel, Vin Populi has landed in Fremantle, offering a refreshed take on la dolce vita. Led by industry stalwarts Emma Ferguson and Dan Morris, of Balthazar and No Mafia fame, count on things being a cut above your usual Italian. There’s never been a better time than now to load up on antipasti, sink into a signature Martini, then relax into evening as the breeze rolls in. We caught up with Ferguson to see how else to make the most of the new venue.

You and Dan Morris have strong form in Perth already, with Balthazar and No Mafia both under your watch. What did you want to bring to the mix with Vin Populi?
We love Italian food and wine, it makes sense to our core, and Vin Populi was almost a love letter to Italy. It takes all our favourite bits and brings them together, from the best wine and vermouth to amazing olives served with a Martini to sensational sardines with freshly made pasta.


With your other venues in the city, opening in Fremantle is branching out just a little for you. Why did you pick the area?
We like city centres. There’s something real and raw in Perth’s CBD, where Balthazar is, and Northbridge, where we’ve got No Mafia. Freo is the same. Although they’re all super different, they have a similar sense of friendly chaos that we love. 

As for where Vin Populi is, I reckon it’s on one of the most beautiful streets on earth. High street is just glorious, not even just from the inside but the outlook on the street is amazing, with beautiful heritage buildings that have been restored really well. Freo is one of the kind, it’s got this city-chic, elegant, artsy vibe, but we’re also 350 metres from the beach, so it’s got the best of lots of worlds.

Talk us through the venue. The space goes back to the ’50s, so there’s a lot history there.
We took over from the original owner Frank’s daughter Lucy. It was previously The Roma Restaurant, and of course it comes with amazing history and legendary memories.

We didn’t want to change a whole bunch, but instead we wanted to pay homage and take it back to its roots; and from all reports from those who were around in the ’50s and ’60s, the place really pumped. So, in the end, a lot of the nostalgia in the design, the elegant pieces, even the playlists have come to pay respect to those times, a ’60s Italian La Dolce Vita spirit.

How does that extend to the fit-out? What choices did you make?
We worked with the fabulous people at Rezen. They’re Freo born and bred and really got our vibe – La Dolce Vita, coastal chic, all the kind of groovy colours that came out of ’60s. Napoli meets Rome on a hot summer’s night, you know. We actually restored the original chairs, we’ve added some vinyl tabletops, there’s some cork in there as well. Yeah, so lots of materials from that era.

You’re running a chalkboard menu, with a stack of antipasti on it, what’s the pitch with the food? You’ve got Leo Crescenzi, who’s from Lazio and has worked with you for years, overseeing things.
The pitch is simple, delicious antipasti, great pasta and a few proteins. We’re not rewriting the rule book, just doing great Italian recipes really well while showcasing some of WA’s best produce.

We’ve worked with Leo for about five or six years and his partner Sil – Sil is our front-of-house girl from Tuscany. And then Leo is from Lazio.They actually met at No Mafia about five or six years ago, so we’ve all worked together for a while. They were both really happy to come on board, and we all spent probably a year just getting it right.

Let’s say I’m in for a drink and a snack. What do you recommend I start with for both?
I’d steer you towards an Italian orange wine, like the COS Ramí from Sicily, and some fresh sliced capocollo. We change our wine list every week, so picking just one is hard! Then for the capocollo, we’re using a local butcher, meaning all our cured meats are made locally, except the prosciutto di Parma.

And for something more substantial, where would you move after that? Pasta? Carne? A Little of both?
Definitely a little of both. Share a Porchetta and a plate of our osso buco tagliatelle with friends. The porchetta come with what we’re calling Nonna-style lentils, and the pasta is classic, old-school handrolled, with osso buco that’s cooked for 12 hours, then the whole thing is topped with Parmigiano Regianno as we serve it. 

Anything you’d recommend if I was having a meat-free day?
Bocconcini, locally made by La Delizia, with fermented tomato chilli to start, followed by the potato agnolotti. It’s rich, delicious, handmade and has cheese and pepper like a cacio e pepe.

There’s plenty of wine by the glass on the blackboard, but let’s talk cocktails and aperitivo first – what would you steer us towards?
Always a Martini or Negroni if I’m choosing! And we have both. The trick is using great vermouth:  Del Professore bianco, and rosso from Rome. As for the house Martini, ours is salty, wet and dirty, with a splash of extra vermouth, olive brine and just a touch of sea salt.

And then if we did move to wine, what’s the angle?
Our list is focused on the best of Italy and WA. And we list the wines by geography, from North to South. There’s plenty to chose from, with lots by the glass and plenty to chose from by the bottle, but the list is always changing. You can spoil yourself or go easy. We all love wine so there’s always someone on hand to help with the wine list too. Some of my favourites right now are the Girolama Russo Etna Bianco, the Vadiaperti Fiano di Avellino and the Barbacan alpine nebbiolo.

Something sweet to finish?
Italian doughnuts – get them to share, chocolate and custard, they’re epic. And maybe a Dark Chocolate Espresso Martini.

And finally, as you get into the swing of things, how do you hope people use and interact with Vin Populi?
In different ways. Pop in for a Negroni or orange wine and antipasti on a weekday. Have a long ladies’ lunch on a Friday. Come for family dinner on a Sunday with roast lamb and a Tuscan red or make it a date night with pasta, vino and Beau. Whatever the mood, we’re aiming for good times and good vibes with delicious food, great wine, lovely service and tunes to match.

Vin Populi, 11 High St, Fremantle,, @vinpopuli

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