Coppa is not Catalan and that's more than all right: Brandi Key makes Italianlight, fresh and fun
If you asked me what the most common flavor is in most Italian food, I might suggest garlic, or maybe tomato. At Coppa Ristorante, it's lemon.
Coppa — the restaurant which replaced Catalan after Chris Shepherd moved on to Underbelly — has promised an American version of an Italian menu, which generally means things get heavier and meatier. But even though Coppa has a menu heavy on pizza and pasta, density is never an issue, with executive chef Brandi Key instead letting fresh ingredients and ripe flavors lead for a light yet satisfying take on the classics.
I started with breadsticks, which are long, thin and crispy. But, oh, the surprise — "There's BACON in this breadstick!" my dinner partner exclaimed. Technically it's not bacon, it's thin ribbons of prosciutto entwined throughout the bread along with a dusting of truffle oil. It's also, needless to say, quite irresistible in a classic bar food way — crispy, chewy, salty — and indicative of how Key is recalibrating the classics on the menu.
Chicken under a brick is the kind of classic that's so easy even I can make it, and yet the Coppa version was so fantastic it was like discovering something completely new.
My first bite of lemon came as part of the fritto misto plate, a smattering of fried shrimp and calamari. The thin lemon slice was breaded and fried as well, and though it's possible (likely?) that I was supposed to spread the citrus zest around on the plate, frankly all fried snacks look the same in a dark dining room, and the tart bite of lemon mixed with a crunch was fresh and delightful between the heavier pieces of calamari.
I also ordered the meatballs al forno, my first meatball after an overwhelming afternoon earlier this year spent as a meatball judge. The Coppa meatball has a flavor and texture that tends more towards sirloin than typical ground meat, making it a little less pliant, but a little more juicy and set it apart from the grandma's meatball recipe archetype. Whether that's a good thing I imagine will be a matter of taste — what says familial nostalgia more than meatballs? — but I liked it.
The pizzas occupy about a quarter of the menu, and since Coppa has installed a ballyhooed wood-burning oven, we ordered two that represented the range of toppings, the Coppa "Ham & Eggs" with dried pork shoulder and egg and one with summer squash, ricotta and pesto. The crust was thin without being crispy and avoided the overly four-y taste some of the other versions around town have. The squash pizza even had something approaching the level of char that New Yorkers demand, enough to give just a touch a flavor without veering into bitter or burned, while the ham and eggs crust showed a lighter touch.
I expected the squash pizza to be a little weird and perhaps overly flavored by vegetables — hey, it's a pizza, not a salad — but it actually turned out to be my favorite. The squash, sliced super-thin, was fresh but not overwhelming and mingled well with the small dabs of ricotta. It's relatively simple, but I like the way it turned the typical pizza flavors on their head. I was less enthusiastic about the unbalanced ham and eggs pizza, which drowned out the rich egg flavor with spice from the ham sausage.
The only true disappointment of the meal was the ravioli, which seemed to lose all tones of mint, zucchini and pepper in the overwhelming goat cheese essence. However, any loss felt was immediately ameliorated by a bite of the chicken "under a brick." One of four traditional protein plates on the menu, chicken under a brick is the kind of classic that's so easy even I can make it, and yet the Coppa version was so fantastic it was like discovering something completely new.
The basic formula is to butterfly a chicken and then roast it weighted down to cook the whole dish quickly and evenly. At Coppa the chicken comes out incredibly tender and bursting with lemon and herb flavor. It's a beautiful repudiation to restaurants that serve a chicken dish as an afterthought.
Is Coppa the kind of standout that Catalan was? No — at least not yet. (To be fair, Catalan wasn't even Catalan after a few months.)
But by making high-end Italian food light, approachable and fun, Coppa does stand out, and frankly, there's a lot to love.