Coping with Organics
[from July 2004 issue]

Striking a delicate balance between casual bistro and tony Italian, Coppi’s on U Street has reinvented itself. No longer just Coppi’s Restaurant, this pocket-sized eatery has become Coppi’s Organic. Once famous as a pizza hangout, this new destination touts a regularly changing menu that is still basically pizza but with a smattering of antipasti and entrées.

And is the restaurant really all organic?, we asked two different staff members, wondering if Coppi’s might challenge the Numero Uno of organics, Nora, the premiere DC restaurant on Florida Avenue that, to date, has been the singular national restaurant certified totally “all organic”--that includes the wines, Nora Pouillon once commented. Everything.

The staff responses differed slightly, in that one person said yes, and the other one equivocated. But whatever its status, Coppi’s Organic is headed in the right direction by embracing fit-to-eat food.

Organics aside, chef/owner Elizabeth Bright and husband Pierre Mattias once owned a related restaurant (Coppi’s Vigorelli, later renamed simply The Vigorelli) on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park that had much the same look as Coppi’s Organic--all those photos of Italian bike racing and biking champ, Coppi--and a similar Italian outlook: Ligurian food.

If you can’t get a handle on Ligurian cuisine, don’t start thinking spaghetti bathed in tomato sauce or even lush, cream-laden dishes topped with copious amounts of cheese. Think, instead, of simple, herbed vegetable and meat dishes broiled or grilled and amply napped with green-gold olive oil--and of cooks using every edible piece of landscape, including flowers.

Specializing in Ligurian cooking, Bright picks up on this use-it-all approach with her don’t-miss Fiori di Zucca alla Ligure appetizer, a Ligurian dish of squash blossoms filled with cheese and herbs then gently sautéed. Flower power here? Almost. While not a flavor knockout, the blossoms are unique in that few cooks in town dabble in edible flowers, and the filling has the bland and smooth consistency of mashed potatoes.

As for entrées, your best bet may still be one of Bright’s pizza selections. With a wood-burning oven in the open-to-view kitchen, you are guaranteed to have a traditional pie, and her topping selections are still among the best in town: tapenade, organic mushrooms, spicy cured meats, pork sausage, lamb sausage with smoked mozzarella, smoked salmon, pancetta, or part of her pantry that go to make a distinctive selection of 14 different pies. We zeroed in on the Genovese, a crust delicately brushed with basil pesto and topped with butterflied prawns and fresh mozzarella.

But the non-pizza offerings, of which there are only five, provide less of a thrill. Who wouldn’t look forward to a New York strip steak, which when offered as a half portion at $12.95 becomes relatively affordable. (A full portion totals $23.95.) So our second entrée had to be the tender steak, but it comes bathed in a strange fusion sauce of tomatoes with ginger. Is that Italian?, we wondered. Other choices: three pastas, one of which, ravioli filled with nettles and crab meat, sounds intriguing. And a seared North Carolina black grouper with summer vegetables would come in last.

As for desserts, one must guess that Ligurians are definitely not sweet eaters. Instead of a parade of rich pastries, such as you might find in Naples, Bright selects such minimalist fare as biscotti, a chocolate-filled calzone, the Italian custard classic zabgalione, and assorted gelati and sorbetti. We ended up with a parfait glass of Belgian chocolate ice cream (gelato), perhaps, at $5.95, the most expensive scoop of ice cream in town.

You may not find the menu arresting, but you should always applaud any restaurant person who strives for organic fare. So for that, we say three cheers to this Coppi’s reincarnation.

Coppi’s Organic, 1414 U St., NW; tel., 319-7773. Open for dinner: Mon.-Thu., 6-11pm; Fri. & Sat., 5-12mid; Sun., 5-10pm. Entrée pizza prices: $11.95 small, $18.95 large; other selections, $11.95-$23.95. Major credit cards accepted.

*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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