The Draw: Assertive, hearty food from Rome and Southern Italy
The Drawback: Service can be overly solicitous
Don’t Miss: The Coperta panino, tagliolini with shrimp and lemon, pappardelle with monkfish sugo, mozzarella and accompaniments, pecorino sausage, pollo alla diavola
Italian restaurants, even in Italy, can torture a lovely cuisine into a parody of itself, especially when chefs chase Michelin stars. I’ve had two-star meals in Venice and the Tuscan hills that made me want to run from the table, weeping for the straightforward cooking of the Italian grandmother I never had. But the best Italian food has a single-minded ineffability that resists gussying up. The key, beyond the obvious requirement for quality ingredients, is often a blunt, unyielding simplicity.
This sort of pared-down fare is not easy to achieve in America, where chefs like to riff. But Paul C. Reilly, executive chef and co-owner at Coperta, attains it in his best dishes. This is a considerable feat, considering that Reilly’s Beast & Bottle success and Hudson Valley upbringing don’t scream Italian purist. And yet, somehow, he channels a nonna.
Coperta’s co-owners, and siblings, Paul C. and Aileen V. Reilly. Photo by Aaron Colussi
Consider Coperta’s Senise peppers, one of 10 sides you can order to go with your choice of two fresh mozzarellas (one made from buffalo’s milk, one from cow’s). Not knowing much about Senise peppers, which come from Basilicata, a region in the arch of the Italian boot, I expected the usual limp roasted red peppers, lolling in olive oil. Instead there arrived a little bowl of fantastic fried shards: hot, sweet, dry, a little burnt, a little bitter. Another standout was the Pugliese celery, which the server described as a fresh relish. And it was—all grassy crunch, lemon zing, and earthy oil. These treats are perfect with the milky cheese, adding flavor and texture to the plate as you build your own buffet; other options include marmalade, fig “vincotto” (a tangy syrup made from grape must), and a superb boutique olive oil.
Another example of disciplined restraint is the “pollo alla diavola,” or deviled chicken. There’s nothing graceful about the presentation: The bird looks like it was run over by a car and then set upon by a flame thrower, though its juicy interior says otherwise. It sits on a pool of chile-brightened oil that’s spicy enough to excite a heat fanatic like me, and there are more chewy red chiles on top. The dish is all about spice and oil, delivered via perfectly cooked poultry. It rivals the superb, though utterly mild in comparison, pollo al limone at Bar Dough for poultronic exactitude.
At lunch, a bundle of al dente tagliolini, twirled into a canoe shape, comes with big shrimp and a sauce of scant cream and ample lemon vivacity. Also on the midday menu, the Coperta panino is exhibit A for how a proper pressed sandwich should be: crunchy ridges of bread toasted to a deep brown and shot through with pickled peppers, melted cheese, arugula, and prosciutto. Have a glass of crisp Sartarelli Tralivio verdicchio with this sandwich for a sublime pairing.
The list of delights on the Coperta menu is long, but let’s pull back and discuss what’s happening here. Coperta says it’s devoted to the food of Rome and points south. This focus is good because attention to regional styles avoids Pan-Italian laziness. Reilly hits all notes, surprising with simple joys like those Senise peppers but still offering plenty of familiar southern dishes: eggplant parmigiana (a good choice if it’s deep comfort you seek), spaghetti cacio e pepe, carbonara.
The wine list is emphatically drawn from southern regions (and includes illustrated maps), featuring whites and reds made from grapes like Nerello Mascalese, Carricante, Malvasia, and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The cocktails are amaro-focused, which feels American-trendy, but then cocktails aren’t that big a thing in Italy anyway. I liked the Autunno and the Palermo, both tart and fruity and made from various amari, vermouths, wines, and spirits. Regardless, next time I’ll just dive into the diverse wine list and finish the meal with a treat such as the Madeira-like Marco de Bartoli reserve Marsala from Sicily.
The open kitchen at Coperta. Photo by Aaron Colussi
Coperta is deceptively large, with three separate dining rooms whose plain decor—heavy on wood and brick, with a tin-and-tile ceiling over the bar—seems more Colorado than Italy. But we’re in Colorado, not Italy, and I’m not sure photos of the Jewish quarter in Rome or the Calabrian coast would signal much.
I mention the Jewish quarter because one of the restaurant’s signature appetizers is “carciofi alla giudìa.” I count a plate of these Roman-style fried artichokes, enjoyed in Rome more than 10 years ago, as one of the greatest simple foods I’ve ever eaten. Over there, artichokes (the tight, purple-globe variety), with the nasty, fuzzy bits trimmed off and scooped out, are fried until brown and crisp then splayed on a plate like wizened sunflowers. You drizzle fresh lemon juice over the top, alternating bites between the tender heart and stem and the crispy leaves; you drink wine; you are happy. Coperta’s version, by comparison, seems more sautéed than fried, is drenched in oil, and is in need of a rethink.
That dish was a weak link in a mostly strong assembly of appetizers, which featured a farro salad whose hearty grains were made interesting with celery bits and oily tuna, a bountiful salumi plate, and a chopped chicory salad as simple and bright as could be.
You can order pastas in small “secondi” portions or as large entrées; the former option is ideal for groups wanting to sample several of the nine offerings. Highlights include the aforementioned spaghetti “cacio e pepe” (the name means “cheese and pepper,” and that’s the sum of it) and ravioli stuffed with chard and ricotta. Both dishes were sauced with a light hand to showcase the pasta. One Thursday night special struck me as an outlier: tiny gnocchi on a Vitamix-smooth purée of turnips with prosciutto and raw apple. It seemed a bit chef-y, a bit fancy…but it wowed.
Spicy pollo alla diavola and a bittersweet Negroni. Photo by Aaron Colussi
For brazen simplicity, nothing matches the salsiccia pecorino entrée, described as “heritage pork sausage, parsley.” But for the aged cheese sprinkled on top, that was it: a coil of salty sausage on a plate. If you like sausage as I do, dig in.
The list of excellent dishes goes on: a tomato soup with Calabrian chiles and mussels; a kale salad for which the greens had been grilled, not charred, to a chewy turn; and a clever dish of pappardelle with “monkfish sugo,” a piscine version of the classic slow-cooked tomato sauce.
Service was meticulously informed but a bit overattentive on two occasions, which always gets my radar up as a critic: Had I been made? At a third dinner, a different server hit the exact balance of casual solicitousness that’s right for the room.
Desserts, chosen from a chalkboard brought to the table, include “grispelle”— doughnut holes, basically, served with Marsala caramel—and a delicious olive oil gelato, a sherbetlike ice that highlighted the green flavors of the oil. The only overreach was the tartufo, a chocolate cookie-like shell containing bland gelato, which reminded me of a chain-restaurant specialty dessert.
With only a few stumbles, the food at Coperta is oily, salty, lemony, and spicy in an unpretentious way that’s rarely found outside Italy. There’s really only one word left to recommend it, as simple as the food is delicious: Go.