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Casual Coppa

Fall in a bowl: the duck agnolotti.
Troy Fields

Coppa'a interior has been described as "Sophia Loren meets Louis Prima." See it for yourself.

"Oooh, I can smell the sardines," my dining companion remarked, as a broad smile broke across her face. The distinct scent of hot clay, lightly charred pilchard and lemon juice drifted past us as the dish made its way to a neighboring table — the simple smells reminding me why I usually order the sweet little fish here — and we both muttered to ourselves at once: "I love their sardines."

Coppa Ristorante Italiano — or the less cumbersome Coppa, for short — is one of those rare restaurants I've encountered in which I've never had a bad meal. Most dishes are so good that I want to order them over and over, and have done this often in my half-dozen visits since the restaurant opened in August. The fact that it's so young makes Coppa's consistency even more surprising.

Perhaps this surefootedness is the result of time-tested restaurateurs Charles Clark and Grant Cooper's guidance — it's the second big-name restaurant the team opened this year alone, after Brasserie 19. But it's more likely that Brandi Key, the woman in charge of the kitchen, is the stabilizing influence that this coltish restaurant needed to get up and on its feet so quickly after being born.

Although she's been cooking for 14 years, Key spent a solid decade of those years with the Pappas company. That's an impressive stretch of time to spend at one place in the culinary industry, and it's clear that Key made the most of her tenure there. She eventually ended up as corporate R&D Chef, overseeing menu development and creating new recipes for restaurants like Pappas Seafood House and Pappadeaux, before Clark and Cooper scouted her out for Coppa. It was the duo's new venture to replace Catalan, which they closed earlier this year after Chris Shepherd announced his intention to start a restaurant of his own.

Key has had enormous shoes to fill here, even if the space is no longer named Catalan. Shepherd used his time there to make Catalan into one of the most respected restaurants in the city and even earned the imposing title of "The Godfather" to a generation of Houston's younger chefs. But Key seems undeterred by the big man's shadow and, determined to make Coppa its own creature, could potentially make 5555 Washington into one of the city's most respected restaurants once again.

She's helped along by the facelift that the space has received. It's still recognizable as Catalan, but it's undergone a casual, colorful makeover that makes better use of the long, narrow bar space and the cheerful side patio that's received a yellow-and-white striped canopy and fairy lights. Back inside, bright hues of turquoise and chartreuse are found in the form of tabletop candles, mirrors with moddish frames and chandeliers dripping with Edison bulbs. The bar's generous and laid-back happy hour encourages you to gulp down gem-colored glasses of Amalfi punch and puckish bellinis. The service is similarly low-key, the waiters clad in burlap aprons, blue jeans and Chuck Taylors. My friend remarked that night that even the clientele at Coppa had gone casual: "It looks like the Brasserie 19 crowd comes here on their night off," she observed.
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On my very first visit to Coppa, I made the mistake of dressing up. I felt a bit foolish in my beehive hairdo and little black dress, but it was force of habit; it's something I would have worn to Catalan. At Coppa, the focus is more on the food than the atmosphere — and the food is casual, fun and meant to be enjoyed without any fussiness. My friend and I sat, stumped, perusing the menus: Everything looked good. So we decided to let our hair down and order a table-full of the dishes that leaped out at us first.

That night was a blurry, dizzying trip through Italian food as interpreted through Key's lens (and colored, of course, by the West Coast influences that Clark and Cooper have brought to the menu).

We munched on lamb pizza topped with fat, white crumbles of feta and vivid mint. We speared hot-from-the-oven meatballs on our forks and nibbled at them between bites of an eggplant caponata that was dusky and sweet and tangy and went far too quickly. We marveled at the gauzy slices of octopus carpaccio on a white plate, tiny pink-and-purple suction cups captured in a thick terrine and mandolined into fascinating slivers that looked like microscope slides. And we ate oily sardines with caperberries and sultanas one after another, licking our lips as we tore through their crunchy skin and delicate bones.

There was barely room for dessert that night, and my sweet tooth has grown more negligible as I've gotten older. But I'm glad we made room for the simple lemon semifreddo and its nutty pistachio crust. The half-frozen lemon curd was neither too sweet nor too plain, and served as much as a palate cleanser as it did an elegant dessert — perfect for polishing off a decadent meal.

Meals don't have to be so indulgent here, but there seems to be something about Coppa that encourages you to splurge in the otherwise casual environment. Sure, you can order a giardino salad and a neat bowl of white bean and sausage soup. But the menu demands that you nearly careen from one end to the other, accumulating plates of rich pâté campagnola and bowls of inauthentic yet unspeakably good spaghetti carbonara along the way. It's that rare restaurant where you're sure to get a good plate no matter what you order, and where even bologna is elevated to a fine art with a plate of whipped mortadella that's good enough to bathe in. Just bring a few friends along to help you finish it all; Coppa is perfect for that, too.
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It can be easy to become jaded in a restaurant town like Houston, where dining out is often less of a pastime and more of a competitive sport. Chefs often take similar approaches to their food, scrambling to incorporate the next big ingredient or feature the next heretofore unknown cut of meat. It can be exhausting as often as it can be exhilarating.

But at Coppa, it's tough to be jaded — even when you eat out every night of the week. The welcome is always warm here, a tribute to the servers and staff that seem to stay on with Clark and Cooper from place to place, and have affectionately bestowed nicknames like Meatball and Cougar Bait. But part of the sentiment goes back to Key's food.

In our city, it's common to see Italian food aggrandized and steroidal, plated in portions large enough for a rugby team and swaggering under snowy mounds of grated Parmesan. At Coppa, there is a decidedly feminine touch to the food, whether Key intends it or not. The dishes are clearly born of a woman in their understated construction and simple, harmonious flavors. There's not a lot of braggadocio here, to borrow an Italian term. Just straightforward, well-cooked food. Chef Key impresses with her simple refusal to over-impress.

The fall-inspired pumpkin ravioli that was recently added to the menu is a good example of this: Where other restaurants might feel the need to gild the lily, the plump pouches need no other garnish aside from the dried cranberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and simple brown butter sauce. It's a delicious exercise in restraint. Ditto the agnolotti, the delicate pasta filled with savory roasted duck and finished off with a few dates, pine nuts and wonderfully crisped Brussels sprouts leaves. The bowl is an entire fall meal in and of itself, without ever having — as Emperor Joseph II would say — too many notes.

Even more impressive is the kitchen's decision to know which foods to make themselves, and which to outsource, such as the milky white burrata cheese. Only one restaurant in town — Capri, in Spring — makes a good burrata in-house. Coppa smartly ships its in from Puglia, then pairs the soft mound of cream-infused mozzarella with a pile of arugula topped with ruby red tomatoes, olive oil, salt and — true to its name — a few dark red, slick slices of coppa. It's a bittersweet reminder of Shepherd's cured meat heritage at Catalan, where coppa was one of his signature pork products, and a spirited proclamation that Coppa is here now — and intends to shine just as brightly as Catalan once did.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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Coppa Ristorante Italiano - Closed

5555 Washington
Houston, TX 77007

713-426-4260

www.copparistorante.com


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