The wait is over. Ken Oringer and Jaimie Bissonette’s newest venture, Coppa, has finally opened. The restaurant had a lot to live up to, not the least of which was the hype built up over the past six months, as every week brought tidbits of news about its opening/ projected menu etc… So, it seems a bit unfair to say that it didn’t quite meet expectations. But it didn’t. And given that restaurant experiences are by nature subjective, the influence of your expectations on your satisfaction are no less legitimate than the quality of the food itself. So, let me do you a favor that will surely enhance your experience should you choose to go: Coppa is not as good as you think it will be.

That said, Coppa is a damn fine concept, with damn fine food, in a, if I may say so my damn self, a damn fine little corner of Shawmut St. Is it as good as Toro? I don’t think so.  My standards for Italian fare are higher than for any other food so I might be a bit biased, but the dishes here (save for the ravioli) didn’t pack the flavorful punch that Toro more often than not delivers. Maybe this will change in time as the chefs tweak the menu based on customer feedback, but right now it’s not as good as it could be. Here’s what we had:

pig's ear terrine

This was tasty enough. The texture of pig’s ear is usually a bit gummier and tough, but this melts in your mouth.

Arancini

This wasn’t tasty enough. Arancini are easy to make. If you need confirmation of this get thee to Galleria Umberto where they sling them out by the hundreds on a daily basis. If I order them at a nice restaurant I want something a bit more interesting going on. Get playful with your balls, chef. Show me something I’ve never seen before. Or drop the price on it.

sea urchin panini w/mostarda and butter

This wasn’t that tasty at all. But to be fair, there’s only so much sea urchin flavor I can handle. I ordered poorly here.

margherita pizza

This was nice. It’s no Gran Gusto. But it’s a Picco caliber pizza.

grilled octopus, salsa verde, preserved lemon

Loved the taste, but good lord there was a lot of sauce. An unwieldy amount of sauce. Like the amount of mayonnaise McDonald’s puts on its McChicken sandwich. That amount of sauce.

calves brains ravioli, radicchio, brown butter, calcagno

This is the dish that will make me go back. Wow. A great entry level dish for the brains rookie. If you don’t like these ravioli I will eat my hat. If you don’t love these ravioli, I won’t eat my hat but I will do something. You can count on that.

I think Coppa will get better with time, and given Oringer’s success with his other restaurants I will be returning frequently to double-check.

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There’s something odd about the aesthetic of Ginger Park. The interior, inherited from its predecessor Banq, seems like a combination of an underground sand bunker and an ear canal.  Like when Han Solo landed the Milennium Falcon in the belly of the space slug, you get the feeling that at any moment the restaurant could come alive and swallow you up. If it did, you’d be consumed along with some occasionally very tasty and otherwise just kind of tasty asian food. The menu is fairly long, ensuring there will be at least a few things for everyone. And in keeping with the Boston area trend away from three course meals and towards small plates (or, in my case, 5 course meals), Ginger Park encourages you to order a spattering of dishes to share with your friends. This trend irks me for several reasons. First, this can lead to occasionally awkward group ordering should hunger not be equally distributed amongst your party.  Erring on the side of too much food solves this problem, but is that really a position I want to be put in? Second, if group dining and sharing is the idea then offer some dishes that deserve to be shared – not plates where you have to ask how many dumplings come with an order to ensure everyone gets a bite. Specials that cater to groups of 4,6, 8 people. Something akin to the Bo Ssam at Momofuku in New York would not only be a more appropriate group dish but also be a unique addition to Boston restaurants more generally. I digress.

The food at Ginger Park is good. How good? Not good enough to persuade me to regularly pay twice the amount I would in Chinatown or Allston for dishes with the same flavors but that are less aesthetically pleasing. But good enough to make me go back when I want to accompany those flavors with good drinks and  a nice outfit. Here’s what we got:

Stir-Fried Silver Pin Noodles w/ snow tofu, bean sprouts

Dolsit Bi Bim Bap

Duck confit and chinese sausage fried rice w/ sunny side up egg

Tea smoked duck, mandarin pancakes, roasted plums

fried fish special

The only disappointment was the whole fish. Not a lot of meat on them bones. The “mandarin” pancakes were essentially  scallion pancakes, and a mediocre version at that. They didn’t compare to Gourmet Dumpling House. I appreciated the kitchen’s willingness to drop a raw egg on the bi bim bap – not too many restaurants would risk offending the squeamish with that move. Both rice dishes and the noodle dish were quite tasty.

While there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly new or exciting about the food at Ginger Park, we were happy with our meal and it does seem to fill a niche in Boston. Asian food tends to come in a casual if not downright dirty atmosphere (not counting Japanese which lends itself quite nicely to an upscale environment, as evidence by O Ya, Oishii, etc..). While there are a couple places that try to defy the stereotype (PF Chang’s? maybe Ginger Exchange?) Ginger Park is to my knowledge the only restaurant serving this kind of food in a trendy atmosphere. One where you might take a date, or meet with co-workers after a long day in your suits. I think that will keep it alive, and makes it worth a visit when that’s what you’re looking for.

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On Sunday nights Clio has started offering a $35 fried chicken dinner. That money will get you a heaping plate of chicken (you will most likely have a healthy amount of leftovers), a couple of sides (we had mac and cheese, cornbread and collard greens), and a dessert. It’s a great value and a great concept – a high end restaurant making simple comfort food.

winner winner, chicken dinner

winner winner, chicken dinner

What I’m about to say may sound like an insult, but I think it’s a high compliment. This chicken tasted like the chicken wings you get on a PuPu platter at a below average Chinese place. I was immediately transported back to my senior year dorm room, sitting on the couch at 3 am playing Fifa on XBox with a chicken bone in my mouth and a spare rib in my lap. Consider what this means. First, it’s delicious. Whoever denies that shitty Chinese food tastes good either has an anomalous palate or is kidding themselves. Second, they  created that tasty flavor profile without the subsequent feelings of nausea, regret, or msg-induced late night scrambles to the sink for water. They’ve managed to turn fresh ingredients (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt on this) into the kinds of flavors you crave desperately. I had a similar experience at Hearth in New York City. One of the pate’s on the charcuterie plate, when eaten in combination with the mustard on the plate, tasted almost exactly like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Incredible! Fast-food restaurants have food scientists whose sole job is to identify the flavors which activate pleasure centers in the brain and will leave customers salivating. Indeed, the suggestion that the Colonel uses addictive chemicals in his chicken which make you crave it fort-nightly is not far from the truth. Given this, I consider it an incredible achievement to  create these flavors not synthetically, but organically. I wish more food tasted like Double Whoppers, I just don’t want to feel like I ate a Double Whopper.

So, in sum, the chicken rocked. The skin was crisp, the breast was moist, and it tasted just as good cold the next day.

lloyd dobbler, apple cobbler

lloyd dobler, apple cobbler?

This was a totally fine apple cobbler. Overall we were very happy with our meal, especially the price. Clio is typically prohibitively expensive, but $35 for a dinner and your Monday lunch is reasonable. And given the quality of the food, I’d say this is an opportunity you don’t want to miss. Not sure how long they’ll keep it on the menu.

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After a last minute change of plans forced us to cancel our Saturday night reservation at Il Casale in Belmont we  scrambled to find a table somewhere in Boston and came up with Rocca. We had been once before shortly after it opened and were largely ambivalent about it’s offerings but figured we’d give it another chance, particularly since they were advertising an overhauled menu. Unfortunately, while there were several things on the menu that sounded interesting and tasty, my ambivalence towards Rocca continues.

pizzette

soppresatta pizzetta, ricotta, roasted tomato, broccoli rabe

In what seemed like a safe play Liz went with the pizzetta as an appetizer. She wasn’t expecting a masterpiece of the brick oven, but it’s pretty hard to make an offensive pizza. This one was particularly doughy and the bitter broccoli rabe dominated the flavor.

baccala

baccala mantecato

There were two appetizers that I was legitimately excited about ordering since they are not often on menus. Baccala and farinata. The baccala came pureed and baked and was served with toast and roasted peppers. I enjoyed this quite a bit and ate it up happily. The farinata, on the other hand…

farinata

farinata

Farinata is essentially a chick pea pancake. It’s easy to make and is a great alternative to polenta as a comforting winter starchy dish. This is the first time I’ve seen it on a menu in Boston so I give credit to the kitchen for serving it, but this one was exceedingly dry. I imagine this is because of its girth. The thinner the farinata the better as far as I’m concerned – the thicker it is the longer you have to cook it to heat through, the harder it is to control the internal temperature, the lower the heat you apply has to be so you don’t burn the outside… it’s just a recipe for mediocre farinata. I do hope that this becomes a food trend though because it is one of my favorite Italian small plates.

tomato basil

spaghetti poveri

The pasta was well-cooked and had a nice texture but the sauces were just ordinary. Not too much flavor going on in the tomato sauce and the panzotti sat in a pool of butter and oil that had me wiping them off on the side of the plate before eating.

squash pansotti

sugar pumpkin panzotti

On the whole, you could do a lot worse than Rocca in terms of Italian food in Boston. It aspires to be more than another North End red sauce dump and it succeeds. It’s just not a place I’d be excited to go back to. But given the perhaps unreasonably high bar I set for Italian food, that might just be a ringing endorsement.

Rocca on Urbanspoon

It has taken us a while to drag ourselves down to the end of Washington St. to try out Ken Oringer’s celebrated tapas restaurant. The whole no reservations thing sapped our motivation a bit, particularly since one of us has an irrational distaste for waiting more than 10 minutes to be seated. But we’ve very much enjoyed Clio, Uni, and KO Prime in the past so it was about time we made the trek. Plus, with a menu that offers such delights as beef heart, tongue, sweetbreads, and head cheese it was only a matter of time before I answered my stomach’s call. We arrived at 5:30 thinking there was no way we’d have a problem getting a table – which we didn’t, but the restaurant was already 3/4 filled. The accommodations are a bit tight, but it works out great for couples who like to stare longingly into each other’s eyes while secretly listening to the conversations around them, sharing knowing smirks and “can you believe that shit?” kicks under the table.

The menu is long and varied, and you will most certainly have several cases of food envy, but you will inspire it as well. We did so, on several occasions, with the following:

ox heart?

corazon a la plancha: grass-fed beef heart with romesco

Thin slices of beef heart. I’ve sung this meat’s praises before. I don’t want porterhouse, I don’t want filet mignon, I want heart. So much more flavor and the texture is lean and chewy.

sweetbreads

crispy veal sweetbreads

tomato salad

tomato salad

Came with what they called Green Goddess dressing, shaved cheese (maybe manchego?), and a creamy avocado mousse. I normally don’t love tomato salad anywhere but in Italy, but I ate my fair share of this one.

foie gras

seared foie gras

Much to my surprise, this was the least successful dish of the night. The jam on the toast overpowered the foie gras with its sweetness.

serrano ham

serrano ham

corn

grilled corn w/ alioli, lime, espelette pepper, and aged cheese

I like corn as much as the next guy, and I would certainly never order it at dinner, but this was labelled as the kitchen’s specialty so I was intrigued.  One cheesy, corn-filled mouth later and I was about ready to order another plate. This is the dish that has me thinking about my next visit to Toro. Do not order this if you are looking to make out with your date after dinner, but if toothpicks and gargling aren’t a turn off or romance is not in the air, then pig the F out. Corn has never tasted so good.

pork belly

crispy pork belly w/fried green tomato and maple crumble

Also delicious. The belly was cooked just right – juicy and melting with a crispy skin – and the flavor combination of the sweet maple crumble and the light, slightly acidic tomato came together perfectly.

churros

churros and chocolate

We finished off with a plate of churros that must have been fried in bacon fat, because these tasted particularly porky. That, in combination with a bit of a spicy kick from the chocolate, gave the flavors in this simple dish several added layers of depth. On the whole, we had a great experience at Toro. We would certainly return, though only for an early seating since by the time we left the line had spilled out the door and into the street. This made me look forward to the opening of Ken Oringer’s new restaurant, Coppa, even more.

Toro on Urbanspoon

Dear Chef, thanks for your comments.  Your observations about the arrabbiata  nicely captures an important point about my perspective on Italian food that I think many other Italians share: if it’s not what I know, it can’t be good. The arrabbiata I’m familiar with must indeed be the Calabrian version – my mom was born there. Given that, any deviation from the norm will be met with skepticism and dismay. Heck, anything short of flying my Calabrian grandmother from Friuli to Boston to cook me the pasta I was raised on will be a let down. I’m sure this is true of most food cultures but perhaps particularly so for Italy given the regional specificity of various dishes in combination with our natural inclination to poo-poo anything not from our own little village. It’s interesting that you mention my dad’s return since he is on a committee of Italians which exemplifies this tendency. They go around to various Italian restaurants in the area critiquing the authenticity of their food. They will not hesitate to besmirch the offerings if they do not meet their extremely high (and, some might say, extremely arbitrary) criteria.

It’s also interesting that the more traditional dishes are the more complex. I have some vague notion that “traditional” correlates with simplicity, as if using multiple ingredients is some kind of culinary innovation. I wonder if that correlation depends on what exactly is being cooked. Perhaps there is a negative correlation for sauces and stocks  – you could always throw in whatever happened to be around, leading to greater complexity. For meat and fish on the other hand I expect that traditional preparations are simpler cooking procedures with fewer ingredients. From this perspective, then, I think I’ll amend what I described as Erbaluce’s MO from “simple, simple, simple” to  “authentic, authentic, authentic”. Complexity is orthogonal to authenticity. Whether one prefers the traditionally simple or the traditionally complex is just a matter of taste.

Not sure why anyone would frown on big herbs in principal.  I thought that’s what made the razor clam dish so great. That’s not to say that I have anything against a piece of meat in a butter and cream bath, there’s a place for that too. But it’s a welcome change and seafood in particular lends itself to the fresh and bright approach.

We’ll be back soon – we already have plans for a couple weeks from now. Looking forward to it!

Liz, my parents and I went to Erbaluce last weekend. It was quite a memorable night for several reasons. Not the least of which was my dad getting a little bit soused and telling the same story about the hazards of flying Ryanair at least three times. He also kept asking Liz if she was poor. Not quite sure what that was about. But hey, it was the night before Easter and the wine was a-flowin’. This was thanks in large part to the incredible generosity of Chuck Draghi, the head chef and co-owner of Erbaluce, who selected several delicious  bottles from his collection of Northern Italian wines for us. We had met the chef before both as a server at no. 9 Park as well as in a class on Friulan wine at Stir. It takes a lot to impress my dad when it comes to knowledge about Italian wine and food and Chef Draghi is one of the few in the Boston area who has managed to accomplish that.

This is the second time Liz and I have been to Erbaluce and both times the chef has greeted each table in the restaurant with a small complimentary plate. This time, he brought some grilled octopus that came with a fresh salsa of different tomatoes and herbs. Very nice.

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Then came the appetizers: razor clams, scallops, anchovies, and polenta. The razor clams were the winners here, but every dish was quite tasty, and I think an impressive demonstration of Erbaluce’s cooking M.O: simple, simple, simple. The dishes came with just a few subtle accompanying flavors, but above all you taste the fish. Fresh, whole herbs are another calling card of the food here. There will be no little sprigs of rosemary, but entire trees adorning your plate.

100_0166 Native razor clams steamed with green peppercorns, leeks, and white wine. Delicious, I sopped up all the broth.

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Scallops. My dad inhaled these before anyone else could try them so I assume they were good.

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Fresh anchovies with lemon, black olive and green beans. Special of the night. The scales were so delicate, I just chomped these suckers down whole.

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Polenta with tomatoes. My mom found the polenta a bit coarse and grainy, but Liz thought it was just right.

Next, the pastas:  I really want to say good things about them, but the pasta dishes are where Erbaluce strays from it’s own philosophy of simplicity and totally misses the mark. This is tragic since the housemade pasta is actually very good – it’s just lost in the sea of flavors. Of the four pastas ordered, three suffered from this: the pansoti, the gnocchi, and the fusili. My spaghi were a bit better in this respect, but still nothing that special.

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Pansoti with sauteed greens, ricotta and a walnut lemon thyme pesto.

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Gnocchi in a far-too-soupy ragu of wild boar . The gnocchi broke down into mush sitting in the liquid.

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Fusili arrabbiata. The sauce was an odd combination of sweet and spicy.

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Spaghi with clams and a tomato bronze fennel broth.

The meal got back on track with the meat courses. The signature rack of boar, the branzino, the veal, and the rabbit all stood out for the emphasis on the taste and quality of the meat itself.

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Branzino. They offer to fillet it for you if desired, but how would you suck the eyeballs out if they did that?

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Roasted rack of wild boar with a wild Concord grape and lavender mosto. Once again, my dad sucked it down before anyone could get their forks in there.

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Lemon roasted veal loin. The sauce was on the sweet side (something that, oddly, was true of several dishes over the course of the night), but that didn’t offset the melting texture of the meat.

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The Easter Bunny. Liz barely got through a bite of this, but that’s because she filled up on her polenta and the tasty bean puree that came out with the bread. My dad was flabbergasted at her lack of will and called her   “a total disappointment”.

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The desserts were just okay. This is the Giandjua truffle.We also tried the orange and chocolate tart. Both were a little too rich for the end of a big meal.

Overall we were very happy with our meal. If the kitchen could get rid of the heavy hand with the pasta sauces then Erbaluce would be my favorite Italian restaurant in Boston.

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