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.

Coppa on Urbanspoon

I’ve sung Gran Gusto’s praises before. It’s our go to place any time we’re in the mood for great pizza.  But this particular occasion merits its own mention because of the incredible quality of the meal from top to bottom. From the grilled squid, to the speck and stracciatella, to the pizza, and the dessert, this may have been the best Italian meal I’ve had in the Boston area. Nothing fancy, just fresh, perfectly cooked and delicious.

grilled octopus

A lot of restaurants get too creative with grilled octopus. There’s nothing better than a nice char, lemon and parsley.

stracciatella and speck

On this particular night the kitchen had several specials revolving around what is now my favorite cheese: stracciatella. It’s the cheese that is used to stuff Burrata – a mixture of mozzarella and cream that will blow your mind. It was served with speck, dressed with a little black pepper, oregano and olive oil, and set over some bitter greens. We inhaled it and quickly ordered another.

rigatoni, stracciatella, tomato, chanterelles

Here the stracciatella was laid over rigatoni in a sauce of cherry tomatoes and chanterelles. Unbelievably good.

margarita

Followed it up with the best pizza around.

ricotta pie

And then topped it off with a nice piece of ricotta pie.

Though the pasta dishes are hit or miss at Gran Gusto, when they get it right, they knock it out of the park. It’s the closest thing we have to the kind of trattoria you might find anywhere across Italy. The service used to be spotty but it seems as if they’ve weeded out the problems as the restaurant has picked up business. Go there.

Gran Gusto on Urbanspoon

While browsing through Rabelais books on Middle St during my trip to Portland last week, I overheard the shop’s proprietress speaking with a young man in his early twenties:

“Chad! Great to see you! How’s life at Jean-Georges?”

Chad is having a great time, apparently. As are the slew of other young Portland chefs who began their careers at the likes of Hugo’s, Fore Street,Evangeline’s, 555, etc… and have since moved on to continue their training at some of the best restaurants in the country (Daniel and Bernardin were also mentioned). It was a fitting beginning to a three day stay in what is certainly the culinary capital of New England. The food quality per capita absolutely dwarfs Boston, and  is on par with the other great food cities in the country. My food tour began at Bresca, a cozy 20 seat Italian-ish place with a charming interior close to the corner of Middle St and Franklin Ave.

Welcome to Bresca

Welcome to Bresca

The menu is small but interesting. A few small plates, including the gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates pictured below, 5 or so apps and entrees and a couple of pastas.

gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates

gorgonzola and chorizo stuffed dates

Toc - smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, lardo

Toc - smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, lardo

The texture of polenta was different – a bit pasty and sticky, not so much creamy.  But all the flavors worked together. The thin slide of lardo over the top really made the dish. As would a thin slice of lardo over virtually anything.

Braised Tuscan black kale - 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, hombu butter, charred multigrain bread

Braised Tuscan black kale - 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, hombu butter, charred multigrain bread

Pan fried sweetbreads, bacon lardons, caramelized shallots, frisee, arugula, sherry vinaigrette

Pan fried sweetbreads, bacon lardons, caramelized shallots, frisee, arugula, sherry vinaigrette

This is how I want all my greens from now on – served over a bed of sweetbreads.

sea urchin linguini, uni, evoo, basil, mint, lemon zest

sea urchin linguini, uni, evoo, basil, mint, lemon zest

Great dish. Interesting and unique flavors. The refreshing mint, basil and lemon perfectly complemented the rich and fishy sea urchin. Bresca could benefit from making their own pasta, though. Not much difference between these linguini and what I get out of a box of Barilla.

market fish, cod

market fish, cod

For the quality, Bresca is very reasonably priced. Though that most likely reflects the cost of operating in Portland. If it were in Boston I would be happy paying $15 app $30 entree. Though it isn’t really an Italian place, the few dishes that are Italian inspired puts the vast majority of the North End’s offerings to shame (though they do a fine job of that on their own these days) and are right up there with the best Italian Boston has to offer.

Bresca on Urbanspoon

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

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!

Bina Osteria is ripe for stereotyping and prejudgment.  Between its trendy white interior and close proximity to the Sports Club LA, one is bound to think this place is going to be high on price and low on quality.  Add that to its claim to be an Italian restaurant, and Carlo and I, though curious, were planning on avoiding it, at least for a while.  But much to our surprise, my mother-in-law said she wanted to try it for her Mother’s Day dinner, and that’s how we ended up there on Saturday night.  Even more to our surprise, we were really impressed by the food.

The meal started with a frizzante red wine and a brief scuffle over whether we should get the 14-course tasting menu or order a la carte.  My father-in-law was adamantly against the tasting menu, which meant my mother-in-law insisted that we order it.  Being Mother’s Day, my mother-in-law prevailed and we embarked on what turned out to be a long, delicious meal.

More on the wine before I start on the food.  The wine I just mentioned was a 2006 Castello di Luzzano Oltrepo Pavese Bonarda from Lombardia, which was the perfect apperitivo.  It was mildly fruity, mildly frizzante, but unlike Brachetto (the other sparkling red that has been popping up in restaurants all over the place), it was dry, and not too expensive at $42/bottle even in a restaurant. 100_0222

For the meal we drank a 2006 Statti Gaglioppo, a calabrese wine in honor of my calabrese mother-in-law, which was also inexpensive at $46/bottle.  Initially it tasted and smelled a lot like banana candy, but it mellowed out and became a drinkable floral wine.  It’s nice to see wines from far-flung parts of Italy making it onto menus and it’s also nice to see that even the less expensive wines at Bina have been selected carefully.

Now onto the tasting menu.  Most, though not all, of the dishes were smaller versions of existing menu items.  We started with rustic country bread accompanied by lard and sea salt followed by two amuses bouches: an oyster with cherry gelee served in the shell (see below) and a spoonful of ricotta, salt and oil and a little shot of fizzy grappa cream.  A nice start to the meal.  The oyster tasted like real cherries and oysters, a combination I have never experienced.  I thought the ricotta was a perfect combination of creamy and salty, though I was told by my Italian compatriots that they’ve had better.  The grappa fizz was reminiscent of cream soda with a kick.

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Our appetizer was called Seriola Marinata, which consisted of CleanFish yellowtail, pinenut confit, avocado, and peppercress.  The nice piece of fish on top of fresh avocado on top of a sheen of spicy/oily, almost arrabiata-like, sauce was delicious and different.

The Seriola was followed by THREE, yes THREE, pasta courses, and unbelievably, the table liked all of them, hardly complaining at all.  The first was perfectly prepared fresh gnocchi with calamari, clams, chorizo, and Meyer lemon confit.  The gnocchi were light and chewy, and the seafood balanced well with the spicy chorizo.  We voted on our favorites at the end of the meal and this one got the most mentions, a shocking revelation coming from my never-pleased-by-restaurant-pasta Italian family-in-law.  The gnocchi was followed by two “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” with house-made pancetta, slow cooked hen egg, and pecorino foam and two braised rabbit  tortellinis.   And for the final pasta course, we had Risotto with crispy sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and aspargus. The house-made fresh pastas were excellent in both pasta dishes, as were the accoutrements, and the risotto was perfectly cooked al dente with lovely fresh morels and asparagus.  Though I think three good-sized pasta courses in a tasting menu might be a mistake, we loved every bite of them.

Onto the fish/seafood courses.  The first one was Atlantic Halibut coated with smoked potato ragu, beet pearls, and watercress (see below).  Carlo said this was his favorite.  I was losing steam at this point.  The potato cream was delicious and balanced nicely with the sweet beets.  Our other sea-faring course was Lobster with Lardo, garden salad gazpacho, picked ramps, and Clear Flour croutons.  This was my least-favorite dish of the evening.  The lobster was a little rubbery/stringy and I just wasn’t hungry anymore, meaning that I was only interested in eating really superlative food.  Carlo ate mine for me, so it wasn’t bad, just least favorite in a great meal.

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Two more savory courses:  Foie Gras with English pea puree and morel mushrooms and Vermont Lamb with baby artichoke, taggiasca olives and Piquillo peppers.  I thought both of these dishes were excellent, which is impressive, because I was so full and tired at this point and I didn’t want to eat anything else.  The foie gras was silky and the peas were bright green and flavorful.  The lamb was perfectly cooked, moist and tender, and the accompaniments were very nice.  I just couldn’t eat them.

But that didn’t mean I was not up for our THREE, yes THREE, desserts.  The first was Moscato d’Asti Mousse with orange sorbet, honey cream, and sumac meringue served in a champagne flute.  Wow, I am going to replace root beer and vanilla ice cream with Moscato and orange sherbert from now on (see below).  This was really good and refreshing.  Next we had “Composition of Rhubarb” with a lemony butter cookie, rhubarb sorbet, lemon meringue, and candied elderflower.  Another beautiful, refreshing delicious dessert.  And finally we had the obligatory tiramisu, which was basically mascarpone cream and chocolate gelato on top of some coffee cookies.  I ignored the cookies, which were a little too crunchy to eat easily and stuck to the creamy stuff, which were both rich and delicious.  My in-laws tittered about how it wasn’t really tiramisu while they licked their plates clean.

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And then we rolled ourselves home, full and looking forward to going back to Bina, but perhaps for the four-course prix-fixe menu next time.

The only real drawback to the meal was its four-hour duration.  Yes, we did order 14 courses of food and should expect to sit there for a good chunk of time.  But there were long lulls between all of the courses, which was nice in the beginning when we were getting warmed up, but as we got fuller, drunker and more tired, we grew a little impatient and disinterested in the food.  We attribute this to the restaurant being fairly new and unaccustomed to customers who take them up on the tasting menu.  This will undoubtedly improve as more and more Bostonians take notice of this great new addition to the city’s fine-dining repertoire.

BiNA Osteria on Urbanspoon

This is another recipe from Stir. First, boil/ bake 2 to 2 1/4 lb potatoes, peel them, and rice them. The ricer is important here as it is one of the few tools I know of that can remove any lumps from the potatoes. Liz likes lumps in her gnocchi, but she’s an unreasonable person.
Ricing the Potatoes

Ricing the Potatoes

Let the potatoes cool and in the meantime you can set up your little gnocchi station:
Gnocchi station
Gnocchi Station
Sprinkle about 1 1/2 cups of flour about the potatoes and the cutting board and gently knead the flour into the potatoes with your fingers. Make a well in the middle of the potatoes into which you should crack two eggs and sprinkle a couple teaspoons of salt. Knead all the ingredients together with your hands, sprinkling more flour as needed, until it just forms a ball and the dough feels delicate and a little bit sticky. This is the difficult part as too much flour will make your gnocchi tough and stick to the roof of your mouth, while too little flour will make your gnocchi fall apart into mush in the water.
Dough it up
Dough it up
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After you have your dough scrape your work surface clean, lightly flour it, and then cut the dough into 6 even pieces. Roll the piece into a rope and cut each rope into the desired size of your gnocchi. You can roll them at this point if you like round little gnoccho balls, or jut leave them in the rectangle type shapes below.
Chop, roll, cut

Chop, roll, cut

Transfer gnocchi to a well-floured parchment covered tray.
Gnoccho's unite

Gnoccho's unite

Throw the tray in the freezer and then when its time to cook, bring salted water to a boil and slip them in. If not using all at once, transfer the frozen gnocchi into Ziploc bags and put back in the freezer where they’ll keep for a couple of weeks. A couple minutes in the water should do it, they’ll float to the top when ready. Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon and transfer directly into a sautee pan with a thin layer of whatever sauce you have prepared.
And if you happen to have a white truffle lying around (i.e. a person to remain unnamed  smuggled it back in his suitcase from Piemonte) as I did back in October, then you will be hard-pressed to find a tastier combination than quickly sauteing the gnocchi in butter, grating some Parmesan, and shaving that sucker all over them.
Gnocchi w/ White Truffle

Gnocchi w/ White Truffle