The day Coppa opened 10 years ago, it was “mayhem,” says co-owner Ken Oringer. That day, he and co-owner Jamie Bissonnette were also juggling a guest chef dinner with Lydia Shire at their Spanish restaurant, Toro, a half a mile away, which resulted in “a whole whirlwind of chaos,” recalls Bissonnette.
Opening Coppa “was literally last-minute,” says Oringer. “It was around 3 p.m. that afternoon when we passed our last fire inspection, and we were like, ‘Why not? We have food; we have our staff; let’s just open the doors.’” But the tight space was a challenge: “No one knew where to wait, and staff didn’t know how to do their dance around each other,” says Oringer. “It was just so cramped and so crazy, but that’s what we love.”
Since that first day, some things have changed: efficiencies, figuring out how to navigate through the space, taking reservations, menus. Despite the changes, Coppa is more or less the same today as it was a decade ago, and that’s what gives it its staying power.
“We always said that we were a neighborhood enoteca,” says Bissonnette, “and we wanted to provide affordable Italian, enoteca-style food, focus on charcuterie and handmade pasta, use a wood-burning pizza oven — I don’t think it’s changed at all.”
“We always said that we wanted it to feel like you’re walking on some dead end in Rome, where you find this tiny place, and they have a wood oven and make their own pasta,” says Oringer. “It’s evolved. The menu has changed with our chefs, and we’ve been lucky enough to have some amazing, amazing chefs over 10 years, so there’s always a little different personality, but deep at the core, Coppa really hasn’t changed much at all.”
While Boston as a whole has changed notably over the past decade, Oringer and Bissonnette find their little corner of the South End to be almost as immutable as the restaurant.
“Every neighborhood has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years, but I think this neighborhood has changed the least of any neighborhood in Boston,” says Oringer. “It’s a step back in time every time I walk in the doors here. You still have the Franklin there; you still have Polkadog, Formaggio.”
“One of the coolest changes to see in the neighborhood is the people as they grow,” says Bissonnette. “You see people as they’re single coming in here on dates who are now coming in here with their children — moving out to the ‘burbs and coming back [to eat]. That’s been really cool.”
And it’s not just the regulars’ children who are growing with the restaurant.
“My kids are now eight and 10,” says Oringer. “My daughter took her first steps in this restaurant.”
Oringer’s all-time favorite dish at Coppa is something that his kids have been eating practically forever at the restaurant: “My favorite is the cavatelli with chicken sausage and slow-cooked broccoli, which has been on since day one. It’s really different. A lot of people are used to the broccoli rabe and sausage type of pastas that have become popular in America, but this one is different. It’s not broccoli rabe; it’s broccoli that’s been put through the meat grinder with mirepoix, homemade chicken sausage — just really great comfort food.”
“That’s my close-second favorite,” says Bissonnette, whose top pick is the calf’s brain ravioli, a dish that has made many appearances on the menu over the years. Of the cavatelli with chicken sausage, he notes that the broccoli is cooked down until it’s “like a tomato puree, completely unrecognizable as broccoli.”
“One of the best compliments we ever got,” says Bissonnette, “is that [Boston chef] Dante de Magistris [Dante, Il Casale] came in and said, ‘Where did you guys learn this?’ He said that nobody does this in restaurants, but old grandmothers do it where his family is from in Italy. He said that it was such an Italian-style dish.”
Like the cavatelli, a few other dishes have been on the menu from day one, such as the uni carbonara, the meatballs, and the parma and salsiccia pizzas.
Some recipes, like the meatballs, have never changed, but the chefs have toyed with the pizza dough and cheeses over the years. “We’re restless people by nature,” says Oringer, “so we’ve been playing around with the dough, adding some biga and doing more local milled flours and rye flours. Our pizzas are the same, but they’re different.”
The plan for the next 10 years is really more of the same — small tweaks here and there, but the same vibe as always.
“We’re always trying to do little things, improving our recipes and efficiencies,” says Bissonnette. “With how much more takeout dining we’ve seen in the past four years in Boston, we’ve thought a lot about packaging and takeout menus and how we can maximize that. I’m personally a huge takeout fan.”
“We’re just trying to create an environment where nobody wants to leave,” says Oringer. “We’ve had people who have been working here for a long time and it’s really a family; all our team has this sense of ownership, and everybody just pulls together. We have cooks who will bus a table on their way in from a cigarette. It’s the kind of place where everybody does whatever it takes to help out here, and it’s literally like being in an Italian grandma’s home.”
It’s that kind of family-like feel that trickles down to the customers and keeps people coming back for a decade to repeatedly cozy up in a tiny, narrow space and watch a quiet corner of the South End pass by over a bowl of tagliatelle and a glass of natural wine.
“That’s what we love about our restaurants,” says Oringer. “Deep at heart, they’re neighborhood restaurants, and as much as the city changes, we just settle into our little spots and have regulars nice enough to support us on a regular basis.”
• Coppa Coverage on Eater [EBOS]