City Paper is not for tourists
Duplicate anything and you risk cheapening the original. So when my friend announces upon entering Coppi’s Vigorelli that “this place is so Cleveland Park,” I breathe a sigh of relief. Vigorelli represents Coppi’s effort to expand its business beyond U Street, where it has exploited subtle measures of classy, cozy, crowded, and kooky to become one of the more popular moderately priced restaurants in the city. Despite the familiar accouterments that Coppi’s has brought uptown—the coastal Italian cuisine, the wood-burning oven, the bicycling motif—the new restaurant is not a cookie-cutter copy of the original.
Still, it’s hard to tell the difference at first. Covering the walls of both restaurants are grainy photographs of the restaurant’s namesake, Fausto Coppi, the legendary Italian cyclist who trained in the mountainous region of Liguria, the native land of both the restaurant’s cuisine and one of its owners, Pierre Mattia. At neither Coppi’s are you guaranteed a seat right away. (Warning to those planning to hit Vigorelli after a movie at the Uptown: So is everyone else.) At the handsome bars that occupy large chunks of space at both locations, excellent martinis are served to waiting patrons. And they’re not cheap. “Two drinks and a glass of wine is $17?” my friend gasps as she settles the pre-meal tab. “Whoa.”
Besides attracting a clientele more affluent and composed than the U Street crowd, Vigorelli distinguishes itself with a menu whose best offerings aren’t pizza. It shouldn’t be such a surprise: Coppi’s pizzas are imaginative and elegant. Improbable ingredients like bliss potatoes, oysters, dill, or smoked trout—a personal favorite—find a home on focaccialike crusts, giving every indication that the kitchen is capable of funky transcendence. But while the U Street Coppi’s menu is similar to Vigorelli’s (the restaurants’ pizza and calzone selections are identical), it’s much more limited. The only time I’d strayed from pizza in the past was to order the calzone alla Nutella, a ridiculously rich dessert that consists of crust and a chocolate-and-hazelnut goop so luscious my friend claims he’d lick it off an old shoe.
The new dishes on Vigorelli’s expanded menu are similarly glorious. Coppi’s applies its pesto like paint, and aside from a basil version that coats the inside of the Ligurian lasagna, it is kept away from pasta. A wild rockfish provides an excellent sampler: One side is stuffed with a minty pesto, the other with the more familiar sundried-tomato variety. Inside baby rainbow trout (the menu says the fish were raised on Walden Farm), a blast of sage complements a sweet raisin pesto; the whole thing’s wrapped in pancetta and served with sage-and-lemon mayo on the side. Oozing from the stuffed shrimp is a brilliant swirl of cumin, raisins, red pepper, cayenne, and walnuts.
Some of the meats—a succulent roasted lamb steak and a relatively ordinary chicken breast—are accompanied by some smoky potatoes; marinated artichokes and some chunks of polenta sit beside a portobello steak. But for the most part, sides are extra. Among the restaurant’s new appetizers is a cake of potatoes, porcini mushrooms, and green beans that would be a great entree if it were twice the size. Like everything hot at Coppi’s, the sliced butternut squash is wood-oven roasted, providing a crisp vehicle for the ricotta, capers, and garlic served with it. Anyone who thinks that spices don’t really qualify as food and can’t carry a dish by themselves never tried finocchio al forno, a plate of coriander-and-vinegar-doused fennel with just a hint of mascarpone. Sure, we spoon it on focaccia. But we don’t have to.
It’s not a slight to either restaurant to say that the new Coppi’s is a grown-up version of the old one; each appropriately accommodates its neighborhood. And neither place skimps when it comes to making every morsel a pleasure. It’s a shame not to milk the stuff for uplift. “I’m sick of settling for the crumbs,” my friend tells me one night at the U Street Coppi’s, having joylessly picked her way through a meal that warranted better. Knowing this is destined to be our last conversation, I prolong the moment and silently clean a plate still caked with Nutella with my finger. “Why,” I ask, “would anyone ever want to settle for the crumbs?”
Coppi’s, 1414 U St. NW. (202) 319-7773.
Coppi’s Vigorelli, 3421 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 244-6437.
What Andy Griffith has to do with Mexican food I don’t know. The folks at California Tortilla don’t care. The quick-stop restaurant has a soft spot for Aunt Bee. On mystery burrito night (Mondays), a likeness of the aunt-who-can’t-shake-her-nephew is fixed on a piece of poster board; spin her head and whichever price her noggin lands on is how much you pay. It’s a touch precious, I know, but the people here make something of a party out of the ritual. I get out of the place spending less than 2 bucks, so count me a fan. However, the jury’s still out on the buffalo-wing burrito. What’s the point of eating wings if there aren’t any bones?
California Tortilla, 4862 Cordell Ave., Bethesda. (301) 654-8226.