Monday, April 30, 2012

Coppa Doesn't Quite Bring Home The Bacon

Coppa feels like the perfect, casual neighborhood dining destination where customers can order relatively affordable, sophisticated fare. Opened now for over two years, and to widespread acclaim, Chefs Ken Oringer (he of Clio, Uni, and Toro fame) and Jamie Bissonette’s (voted Best New Chef by Food & Wine in 2011) Italian-inspired enoteca shows no signs of slowing down, even on what should be a relatively calm Sunday evening. Thankfully, our party has reservations (yes, Coppa now accepts them). Tucked away in the corner of a long stretch of brownstone buildings on Shawmut Ave, Coppa’s laid back setting nicely fits this quaint, cozy neighborhood in Boston’s South End.

Coppa’s interior is intimate, bordering on invasive. The list of menu items outnumbers the tables (seating capacity is for forty), which closely abut one another. The acoustics are incredibly bad, given both the restaurant’s high ceilings and even higher decibel level at which music is blared. One of my friends shouts over that he can barely hear himself speak. Lean back and you might just hit the bar area, with only a few feet separating it from the tables. Waiters nimbly weave by customers, scurrying down a long, narrow hallway leading to one (yes, one!) restroom.

Fortunately, this chaos is offset by some fun, if not consistently executed food. Some elements of dishes work wonderfully, while others do not. You’ll find a see saw of culinary quality here. The menu consists of small plates (Stuzzichini), pasta, salumi, cheeses (from beloved Formaggio Kitchen just across the street) and wood-grilled pizza, with chacuterie being Bissonette’s specialty (i.e. cured meats, pate). While I wish the Meatballs al Forno ($8) were a tad moister, the accompanying tomato gravy was enjoyably hearty and the melted lardo enhanced the meat’s flavor. The piece de resistance, however, is Pig’s Ear ($6). For the more squeamish diners, it’s not as visibly unappealing as you would be led to believe, as it is served in gelatinous, terrine style form and laid atop wonderful yuzu aioli for contrast. It’s a knockout plate. The Tonna Conserve (cured tuna belly, $6), however, is shockingly bland, with nary a hint of flavor emanting from the promising anchovy parmesan vinaigrette. Like several dishes at Coppa, it’s underseasoned. Sadly, its texture is not much of an improvement from my daily Bumblebee tuna, particularly disappointing given the accompanying egg yolk that’s blended in, somewhere. This tuna preparation, pardon my pun, went belly up.

A better, more traditional tuna crudo ($14), however, is spectacular, which boasts a boatload of flavors and textures bolstered by fennel puree, blood orange vinaigrette, miniscule pickles, and a subtly nutty walnut dukkah for crunchy contrast. Also lovely and light is a Insalata di Asparagi ($9), consisting of shaved asparagus, gigantic fava beans, a touch of lemon, and Bianco Sardo (shaved cheese).

Duck prosciutto (part of the salumi assortment, all $10), while wonderful to look at in thinly cut blood-red, mini strips, is once again underseasoned, and could use more salt. Then again, a Panino di Riccio de Mare (sea urchin and salami panino with mustard seeds, $7) is a delightful, surprising treat, comfort food’s worst nightmare come true. The sea urchin, whose slimy, briny texture I typically shy away from, meshes perfectly with the salty crispiness of the bread and the mustard’s spicy heat. Like the aforementioned pig’s ear, it’s a standout.

On the other end of the see-saw, however, lies a colossal misfire. While the ultra-hyped wood-grilled Bone Marrow white pizza ($16) has a crispy, charred texture that any North End pizzeria would envy, it’s a bland, underseasoned (once again lacking salt), slightly over-doughy disappointment. The cheese just limply sits there, and I could not locate a hint of the promised shaved horseradish, which if dutifully applied, would have added contrast in flavor and elevated the pie. The bone marrow and beef heart are innovatively applied yet wasted and tasteless here. The Sicilian Fisherman Pizza ($16) is loaded with plump fried calamari on steroids, tomato, parmesan, and cherry peppers which add intense, welcomed heat. The women at the table fawn over the dish. The calamari, while tasty, overwhelm the pizza like the Blob overtakes an unfortunate small town. The calamari are better suited on their own.

Pasta dishes are also hit-or-miss. The Spaghetti alla Carbonara ($20) is a rich, creamy blend of house made pasta with smoked pancetta (which adds a nice crisp to the dish), sea urchin, peas and farm egg. While good, it’s far from excellent. It is – wait for it – a bit underseasoned and possesses more of a chicken stock flavor than the smoky flavor I anticipated. A better bet is the Linguine Nero ($22), with house made squid ink pasta with lobster, black garlic, tomato, and wonderful Castelvetrano olives whose tartness is a perfect counter to the crustacean’s sweetness. Another winning, albeit traditional dish is the Pollo alla Milanese ($14), a small plate of incredibly sweet and crispy chicken.

Cocktails range from apertivo (sweet, tart, and slightly bitter flavors) to secondi (savory, spicy) to shandy (beer cocktails). While Italian Sangria is excessively spicy yet not remotely sweet due to a whopping inclusion of anise, a refreshing glass of Aperol (a sweet, slightly tart liquor that is 26% alcohol) over ice hits the spot. It’s even more refreshing to see an establishment stock this type of liquor, which is rarely served in restaurants nowadays. Drink slowly, however, as the glasses in which the drinks are mixed are rather small.

Overall, Coppa earns positive marks for its unique cuisine in a non-pretentious atmosphere. As hectic and cramped as the environment is, service is surprisingly polished, courteous, and efficient. Dishes are promptly replaced. Water glasses are immediately refilled. Questions are cordially answered. There are winners on this menu, but simply not enough of them. This may sound pigheaded to the masses who have showered praise upon Coppa, but my feeling is that the restaurant must improve upon the consistency, execution and seasoning of its food. Otherwise, Coppa – a restaurant aptly named in Italian after salumi made from pork- will never truly bring home the bacon.

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