Coppa Osteria Is Reinventing Italian with Heart and Flour-Covered Hands
On an unseasonably cool October evening the patio outside of Coppa Osteria is full, and chef Brandi Key surveys the crowd like a proud Italian matriarch whose family is enjoying the fruits of her labor. Key then heads inside the bustling restaurant, picking up a plate to deliver to a hungry patron here, bringing a glass of wine to a diner there. She stops by the open kitchen and checks on the cooks behind the counter. She glances into the "dough room" to ensure the pasta and pizza dough are being prepared to her liking. Then the chef heads back outdoors to savor the night air and take in the crowd reveling in her newest venture.
Strolling around the lively space, Key is an island of calm in a sea of pizzas floating by on the hands of hurried waiters and chefs frantically chopping and kneading and pulling pasta. Though Coppa Osteria opened only a little more than a month and a half ago, it already feels like an old neighborhood hangout. Key's newest child is certainly a precocious one.
Even when she's out front checking on patrons, the dishes coming from the kitchen maintain the integrity of the recipes that made Key a star at Coppa Ristorante, the upscale cousin of Coppa Osteria. The pizzas are baked at high temperature in a dome-shaped gas-fired oven until the bottom of the crust forms spots of black char and the cheese bubbles and blisters into crisp, hollow bumps around the edge. Simple ingredients such as smoked mozzarella, fresh basil, and vibrant green and orange squash blossoms straight from the market keep the pizzas firmly in the realm of the traditional, with creative twists like mint or pork shoulder making regular and welcome appearances.
The spaghetti carbonara, which Key credits with helping her land her cooking gig at the original Coppa, is divinely simple as well, but it, too, demonstrates Key's creative flourish. A mound of slightly twirled spaghetti is dotted with flecks of black pepper and parsley and shavings of salume toscano in place of the traditional guanciale. The shiny golden yolk of a single egg sits delicately atop the nest of pasta and wispy shreds of Parmesan cheese. In a traditional carbonara, the eggs and guanciale fat meld together under the heat of the just-cooked pasta to make a creamy sauce, and no actual cream is needed. Key's carbonara arrives at the table unmixed, and a server quickly drizzles a Parmesan cream sauce over the noodles, then stirs them with two forks to incorporate the egg before the pasta cools.
It's a synchronized dance of pasta and egg, heat and hands, all working together to create a nontraditional version of a traditional dish that just might convince you that all those people who lament the use of cream in carbonara are completely crazy.
But if you don't like people touching your food, steer clear of Key's signature pizzas and pastas. There are no tweezers at the osteria, and it's nearly impossible to roll dough while wearing plastic gloves. Key herself says that she's all about working with her hands to create something special for her guests, even if it means getting a bit messy. She wants people to know that, as is true of all authentically prepared Italian food, hers comes from her heart and her flour-covered hands.
A large part of Coppa Osteria's allure is the elegant decor that accompanies the menu of Brandi Key-style Italian classics. The color scheme of gray, teal and bright yellow hardly seems evocative of a traditional Italian osteria, nor do the sleek modern light fixtures that look like gilded spokes with a bulb at each end. Plush teal stools line the bright and lively bar, and oversize mirrors in glossy white and turquoise Baroque frames reflect light throughout the space. Each table has a candle, some of which are in bright blue-green glass holders, while others top brass candelabras and melt into intricate wax designs all over the table. It's a mix of old-school comfort with a modern aesthetic, but the entire space is anchored by the traditional dough room, which is where all the magic happens.
The osteria was intended to be a more casual counterpart to the ristorante, and the lack of white tablecloths and the presence of diners in blue jeans and T-shirts certainly evoke a relaxed feel. There are groups of women dressed up for a ladies' night out, laughing uproariously over glasses of wine. There are families with children, the parents gently instructing the kids on proper spaghetti-eating form. There are couples on dates and businessmen celebrating the end of the workweek. Outside there are folks completely dressed down, enjoying a slice of authentic pizza before heading back to the dorm to do homework or catch up on sleep. The setting is casual and the clientele diverse, but the prices on the menu remind you that you're still dining in a Clark Cooper Concepts establishment.
In fact, I was surprised during my first visit to Coppa to discover that there's a great deal of menu overlap between the osteria and the ristorante, and as such, the prices overlap as well. An outdoor window where diners can stop by and grab pizza by the slice and the addition of sandwiches to an upscale menu do not a casual restaurant make. Sure, you can sit and eat your carbonara in shorts and flip-flops, but it's still going to be a $21 bowl of carbonara. And you'll probably get disapproving looks for being underdressed. The osteria may be more casual in theory, but it is in Rice Village, which has steadily become a more upscale shopping and dining spot in the past few decades.
If you ask local food lovers which restaurant is better, Coppa Ristorante or Coppa Osteria, they'll generally tell you the ristorante serves more laudable food and has better service. In order to get the new Coppa up and running, much of the staff (including the pizza maker) from the ristorante came to the osteria, and because many of the dishes are the same, figuring out the menu ins and outs shouldn't be an issue. But the space is huge, and the waiters constantly seem frazzled by the demands of serving more than 100 people at a time, inside and outside. I have yet to order wine off the short but diverse wine list and receive what I asked for on the waiter's first try, and sometimes a server will disappear for ten minutes at a time, only to hound you with constant water refills for the following ten minutes. On a few occasions, I was left to wonder whether I'd actually placed a dessert order or just imagined it. But the panna cotta with berries is too wonderful to simply imagine. It must be tasted.
Pizzas, it seems, are not always properly rotated in the oven, so they're sometimes cooked unevenly (but taste great nevertheless), and someone in the kitchen on one of my visits apparently had a heavy hand with the cracked black pepper (which I'll take over a heavy hand with the salt any day). The recipes are there, but the kitchen at Coppa is still working out a few kinks.
In spite of minor slip-ups in the preparation, the food at the osteria is the end product of Key's inventive takes on Italian cuisine, which elevate often-commonplace dishes like meat-lover's pizza to the carnissima — arguably the best combination of meat, cheese and dough in the history of those ingredients. Hopefully Key will start serving the pizza with scamorza cheese already on it, but for now you have to order the cheese as an extra topping, and I highly recommend that you do so. The mixture of the soft, delicate cow's-milk cheese with five different kinds of cured meats and a drizzle of Parmesan cream sauce is decadent and downright heavenly. The carnissima is almost enough to make this Texan forget barbecue altogether in favor of this superior presentation of perfect pork.
In like manner, the homemade "gluten-friendly" pasta could make you forget that pasta was ever supposed to contain gluten at all. During one meal, I dove into a bowl of fettuccini Alfredo that came as a side with my veal steak marsala and relished the entire experience before Key informed me that I had just gone to town on something devoid of gluten. I was so sure I'd know the difference, but I had no idea.
I also had no idea that I liked meatballs so much, since the idea of ground meat rolled into a ball and smothered in sauce has never appealed to me. The "small plate" of meatballs al forno comes with three giant spheres of peppery, spicy meat, with not a hint of chewy or unidentifiable bits (my greatest fear when it comes to meatballs). They're so smooth and flavorful, in fact, that I went back for seconds and thirds, leaving my poor friend who had ordered the dish quite hungry by the time his entrée arrived.
Though main dishes like veal steak marsala and chicken under a brick are well executed, the most solid entrées, the stars of Coppa Osteria's show, are clearly Key's pizzas and pastas. Even a simple dish of fusilli and marble-sized meatballs (polpette) is better than an average bowl of traditional spaghetti and meatballs. The fusilli is made in-house (and can be prepared with gluten-free dough upon request), and the miniature meatballs taste like the same alluring medley that made the larger baked meatballs such a hit. Perhaps the best element of this fusilli dish, though, is the bright, acidic tomato sauce, so simple in its execution yet so wonderfully robust in flavor. Dishes like this most clearly exemplify the Coppa and Brandi Key modus operandi — the best ingredients, simple preparation and a hands-on approach to everything.
At some point during the evening, Brandi Key disappears from the dining room and slips back into the kitchen. She's spent the better part of an hour chatting with diners, assisting the servers and overseeing the kitchen like a proud mother whose children are proving they were listening after all when she taught them how to make the perfect pizza dough. Though Key is a gracious host and clearly relishes watching diners enjoy the fruits of her labor, getting her hands onto a round of dough is what really lights her up.
"There's nothing more fascinating than water, yeast and flour," Key said in an interview back in 2012, before the osteria became a reality. After dining on her fanciful creations made with those three ingredients, I'm inclined to agree.
It's the simplest food at Coppa — the pasta, the pizza crust, the ground meat mixed with a few spices and formed into delectable little balls, the sinfully smooth tiramisu — that has the greatest impact, and that seems to be Key's intent. Diners will always seek hyper-traditional Italian dishes or modernized takes containing 15 extra ingredients, but the middle ground struck by this osteria is certainly a worthy goal. Like a good dough, it just needs some time to rise.
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