Paul and Aileen Reilly, the brother-sister team behind Beast + Bottle, couldn’t have picked a better spot for Coperta, their Italian restaurant that opened at the height of summer. It’s located on the edge of downtown across from Benedict Fountain Park, so after a leisurely meal, you can head out the door, belly full of wine and pasta and cheese, and engage in that most Italian of traditions: the passeggiata, or evening stroll. As you walk — even if it’s just to your car — you’ll take in the fountain, illuminated against the darkness. And for a moment you’ll feel like you’re far away, in a city where meals start late and end even later, where even the simplest of ingredients can create the stuff of memories.
Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? What else would you expect from Coperta, a restaurant inspired by the Reillys’ love for the cuisine of Rome and Southern Italy? “I have always thought my chef soul was Italian,” Paul Reilly told me by e-mail last spring. Prior to launch, the pair traveled widely throughout Rome and points south, then came home with a roster of dishes so authentic, they need a dictionary. The siblings graciously provide one, printing a list of translations on the backside of Coperta’s menu.
Some dishes are sure to leave you smitten. Bucatini all’amatriciana is a lovely study in contrasts, the airiness of the hollow noodles contrasting with nubs of salty guanciale. True to Roman (as opposed to Italian-American) tradition, the red sauce lightly coats, not drowns, the pasta, more like a windbreaker than a winter coat. I haven’t had better cavatelli — small, ridged noodles with the defining chewiness that comes from durum wheat — in decades, not since I tucked into a plate handmade by the Italian-American son of an Italian immigrant in Cleveland. Made in-house at Coperta, they’re accented with a glorious wine-forward ragù with appreciable bites of braised lamb and beef. Available, like all primi, in half and full portions, this pasta begs to be eaten the American way, as an entree.
Pollo allo diavolo might be seen as Italy’s answer to hot chicken, but it’s far more than that: It’s one of the best entrees you’ll eat all year. Diavolo means “devil,” and this half-chicken lives up to its name, fiery from its chile marinade, Calabrian chiles and the red-tinged chile oil ringing the plate. I’d sell my soul right now for a piece of the skin alone, charred on the wood-fired grill to a state of crackliness that’s fiendishly good.
A tousle of arugula, more garnish than side, finishes the plate. Such a minimalist approach to sides is common in Italy; if you require something more substantial, try the polenta, with a seductive fluffiness that speaks of cream but comes instead from butter and, of all things, leftover whey.
But just when you’re sure you’ve fallen for Coperta, with its meandering rooms, homey atmosphere and big windows overlooking the park, there’s some slip-up in food or service or ambience that makes you question the allegiance of your heart.
At night, the lights can be uncomfortably bright. Loud pop music doesn’t match the charming decor, with ornately framed mirrors and kitchen utensils on walls and shelves. Servers have a way of disappearing for such long stretches that you wonder if they’ve gone out for a smoke. One night, a flight of aperitivo glasses, long emptied of their glowing amber- and ochre-hued contents, wasn’t cleared until antipasti, primi and secondi had been consumed.
The kitchen runs under the direction of chef de cuisine Bob Blair, whose now-shuttered Fuel Cafe drew people to RiNo before RiNo was a thing, and the dishes I’ve shouted out show just how alluring Coperta’s food can be. But in the menu item where you’d most expect to feel the love, an intriguing appetizer called spuzzulia, which promises an ever-changing selection of off-menu nibbles, there’s a surprising lack of passion. Roughly defined as “things you can eat with your hands” — from spuzzuliare, a bit of hard-to-translate Neapolitan slang — spuzzulia is the kitchen’s chance to wow. The $18 appetizer did little to steal our hearts, however. Anchovy toasts with lemon rings were topped with the slimmest slivers of fish. Bagna cauda, a warm dipping sauce for cut vegetables, came out cold and minus anchovy’s umami. Kale pesto was heavily over-seasoned. If this appetizer was truly designed for four, as our server assured us it was, why were most of the snacks portioned for two?
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Other dishes seemed dashed off in the heat of the moment. If someone had double-checked, maybe chard ravioli wouldn’t have come out tasting mostly like orange. Maybe twice-fried artichokes wouldn’t have come out more inedible than edible, with hairy chokes and tough outer bracts that fried up into sharp points. Maybe cacio e pepe wouldn’t have had dry noodles and a gummy sauce that stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Maybe a doughnut’s marsala caramel would’ve come out smooth, not grainy. And with more time, maybe someone would have questioned the wisdom of overpowering fresh mozzarella — especially such a fine one as this, made with buffalo milk according to strict Italian standards and flown halfway across the world — with mustardy marmelatta and fig vincotto with Worcestershire’s bite.
True love doesn’t have to happen at first sight. Cavatelli, bucatini and pollo allo diavolo — not to mention Coperta’s lovely location — are excellent reasons to keep pursuing the relationship, hoping for a happy ending.
400 East 20th Avenue
Cacio e pepe $8/16
Cavatelli ragù $12/24
Pollo allo diavolo $19
Grispelle (doughnut) $8
Coperta is open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday, 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at copertadenver.com.