Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Kaitlin Steinberg