Odd Pair: Pseudo-Italian Sports Bar and French Wine

Let's face it: No matter how you dress or slice the meatballs (more on that below), if you have ESPN constantly streaming on monitors that hover above your bar and dining room, you are a sports bar -- even if you slap ristorante italiano onto the name of your restaurant.

According to its website, Coppa Ristorante Italiano on Washington "is an expression of the evolution of cuisines, menus, service and ambiance that characterizes the history of the Italian dining experience in this country."

Evidently, agnolotti tossed in cream sauce (alfredo?) topped with lump crabmeat falls under this category. They didn't really resemble the agnolotti that I've eaten in Piedmont, Italy, or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or Houston, for that matter. But fair enough. We're faced here with an "evolution of cuisines," whatever that means. (Traditional Piedmontese agnolotti are stuffed with leftover boiled or roast meat, salame, and a leafy green like escarole or chard, and tossed in the juice of a roast or a meat sauce.)

And while the meatballs -- there's no denying it -- were simply superb (light but meaty in the mouthfeel, perfectly seasoned but not overly fatty, tossed in a judicious tomato sauce and finished with saucy Parmigiano Reggiano), there wasn't much else to write home about, unless you think that polenta is a type of Southern corn pudding.

Coppa is relatively new and is clearly still ironing out some of the wrinkles in its menu's identity crisis. But I have every intention of returning as soon as I possibly can... that is, as long as there are still gems left over from Antonio Gianola's excellent list at the now defunct Catalan, which once thrived at the same location.

2008 Lapierre vineyard-designated Beaujolais Morgon for $33 a bottle? My recommendation? RUN, DON'T WALK, PEOPLE!

When I first moved to Texas three years ago, Antonio was one of a handful of courageous sommeliers in this country who adopted a "retail plus corkage" pricing schedule in response the financial crisis and recession. I'll never forget the first time I was introduced to Antonio in 2009: He gestured toward a packed dining room and said with deserved pride, "There's a bottle of wine on every table."

Antonio has parted ways with the restaurant group that manages this space (and he is rumored to be opening a wine bar), but his legacy -- or at least an echo of it -- remains.

As red-blooded Americans, we have been taught to know Beaujolais through its most commercial and confabulated concoction: Beaujolais Nouveau, one of the greatest marketing scams of the modern era.

In fact, Beaujolais produces what many consider to be some of the best and most affordable wines in Europe. Morgon is one of the 10 "crus," or growing sites, designated as superior expressions of the appellation. In the hierarchy of the appellation's vineyard designations, it is among the most full-bodied and is renowned for its earthiness combined with bright acidity and fruit aroma and flavor.

Anyone who's ever been to Lyon (the city of "three rivers": The Rhône, the Saône, and the "stream" of Beaujolais) knows that Beaujolais is often served slightly chilled, and our server very graciously chilled the bottle down for us before service (hence the water stain on the label, above).

I've always loved famed and now sadly missed biodynamic producer Lapierre for his wines' technicolor fruit and their bright acidity. And this wine delivered like the champion that it is, prompting superlative wows and ooos from my dining companions.

We also drank a deliciously salty bottle of 2007 Ribolla Gialla by Slovenian Natural winemaker Movia for $37, and while the wines by the glass tend toward the commercial, the more-than-fair pricing offered some excellent clean, fresh choices on a balmy Houston early evening.

When I enter a restaurant, televisions are big turnoff for me. But the excruciating din of ESPN is palatable if I know I'll be rewarded again with a wine from a tiny village in rural France -- Beaujolais Morgon by one of the world's most beloved biodynamic producers. One of the oddest pairs I can imagine. But then again, stranger things have happened...

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