Opening a restaurant is like running a sprint that lasts 26.2 miles, not 200 meters. So we weren’t sure if Paul Reilly, the chef/co-owner of Beast + Bottle, who’s opening Coperta this summer, would have a moment to breathe, let alone talk to us — but he did. Graciously stepping away from both spots, he opened up about what to expect from his new place; what it felt like to close Encore, his first restaurant; and what he thinks should be the official Colorado state dish. Is it one of his own? Keep reading to find out.
Westword: What led you to follow up Beast + Bottle with an Italian restaurant, and why did you focus on Southern Italian cuisine?
Paul Reilly: I have always thought that my chef soul was Italian. I love the attention to ingredients and the regionality of every dish; it plays right into my geography-nerd side. Aileen [sister and business partner] and I grew up eating a lot of Italian food in New York, not knowing that a lot of Italian-American food is based on the food from Southern Italy because that’s where most of the immigrants came from. Southern Italian cuisine is a nice contrast to Beast + Bottle. Beast is a meat-focused restaurant. Coperta will be more pasta, fish and vegetables.
What are some of the dishes you’re most excited about?
I think people will really dig the mozzarella menu. We will serve the cheese à la carte, and guests will be able to add on as many things as they’d like, ranging from bread to seasonal vegetables to bagna cauda.
I’m also really excited about the second courses coming off the wood-fired grill, especially an Abruzzo-style lamb shoulder marinated in garlic, chile and anchovy. And, of course, the pastas, ranging from dried and extruded to a few fresh. Dried pasta is more indicative of the southern region because eggs were such a luxury item.
Tell us how the menu came together. Did you have a sense of what direction you wanted to go in prior to your trip to Italy?
The menu came together very organically. I had an idea of what I wanted — or what I thought I wanted — but our trip changed all that. In the south, specifically Campania, there’s a term, spuzzulia, which means “eat a lot of little things.” We’re going to incorporate this idea into a section of the menu where guests can start with a few chef-driven bites and then go forward from there. I knew the food was simple, but the raw simplicity really shocked me. It’s just all about great ingredients. That’s why I think we’ve been successful at Beast, because of the quality of our ingredients. I’m excited to bring that idea to an Italian concept.
Where did you go on that trip, and what stood out?
We started in Rome and went from there based on whatever locals told us. There was no real itinerary except for a few scheduled wine tastings in Avellino and Molise. We’d basically look at restaurant menus online and say, okay, let’s drive there. I absolutely fell in love with Campania, specifically the city of Salerno. It’s a university town, and you could feel the youthful vibrancy. Also Matera, in the Basilicata region. We were the only English-speaking people there. It’s gorgeous! Go now, though: As soon as Americans discover this place, it’s over. It’s bound to be a tourist trap for years to come.
How long have you been in the business?
Since I was fourteen, washing dishes at an authentic German restaurant. I’ve had one other job, ever: mowing lawns at a golf course when I was sixteen. Besides that, I’ve spent most of my life in a kitchen.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I think it chose me. Growing up, people were always coming over to our house, and my mother would always feed them. I loved how happy that made people. Memories are made over a table.
What’s your earliest food memory?
There is an old-school ice cream/soda fountain called Hildebrandt’s in Williston Park, New York. I have brief glimpses of my parents putting me in pajamas and walking up there to grab dessert after dinner parties so I would fall asleep on the way back home.
This is a hard business in general, and opening a restaurant is particularly taxing. What keeps you from burning out?
I run in the morning, meditate in the afternoon and go to the gym when the weather’s bad. I’m not particularly good at any of those, and I need to do all three a lot more often. What really puts me back on track is traveling and getting away for a bit. Also, I love to be at home with my family and cook a meal. It sounds odd that I relax from cooking by cooking more, but it’s totally true. I love to grill in the summer months. We’ve joined a CSA this year, so I’m particularly excited about cooking, pickling and preserving local veggies at home this summer. All in all, the challenge of the business excites me every day. You can always get better. I love that.
How do you feel about signature dishes? Guests often love them, but some chefs don’t like being pinned down.
I love having signature dishes and think they’re a must. If you look at all the great American chefs and iconic American restaurants — even on a local level here in Colorado — they all have that one dish that they are married to and that guests gravitate toward. We’re going to have a pretty set menu at Coperta and run features on a more seasonal basis. [It will be] the kind of place where, if you love something and crave it, you know you’ll always be able to enjoy it.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
We had this excellent — well, I thought excellent — bollito misto one winter at Beast + Bottle that I swore was going to get us in Food & Wine. We had three different cuts of pork — shoulder, tongue, belly — in this gorgeous silky pork broth and a pork agnolotti, with sauce accompaniments, like mostarda, salsa Rossa and marmellatas, that switched up weekly. It was such a dog. Guests didn’t go for the tongue. It’s still the most polarizing meat we put on the menu. We’ve served raw lamb heart before, no problem. Tongue? No way.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
Making the decision to close Encore. It was absolutely the right choice, but I took it much harder than I thought I would. I went to kind of a dark place for a bit and then told myself that this was meant to happen for a reason, and that reason was to become a better chef and create a place I could craft as my own. It taught me to always follow your instincts and to push yourself through challenges.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Pizza, hands down. I never tire of it and find myself constantly craving it at every meal of the day, especially breakfast.
Is there an ingredient on Coperta’s menu that you’re especially excited about?
Locally milled durum flour from our friend Greg Wright at Prairie Harvest Organics in Byers. We’re making a killer cavatelli with it.
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
Fried Brussels sprouts. Yes, they’re delicious, but does every place in town need to serve them? We’re out of touch that they actually have a season. They’re ubiquitous in this town.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?
I love preserved-fish techniques, and we’re dabbling with fish charcuterie at Beast, but I really think monkfish liver sucks. Some say it’s the foie of the sea. It just tastes like low tide to me.
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Do you have a favorite motto?
“No pressure, no diamond.” If it doesn’t take time, it probably won’t turn out to be excellent.
Are there any hidden gems in your neighborhood, or restaurants around town that you think deserve more attention?
There’s a sushi cart at 17th and California called Yatai. She does a great job, and I know she sources her fish from responsible vendors. The soup and the hand rolls are delicious and a great value. Also, while everyone knows that El Taco de Mexico is a culinary gem, has anyone ever talked about how badass the ladies who run the show in there are? They’re superstars. The smothered chile relleno burrito with beans and rice and salsa and onions should be the state dish. That place is a national treasure.
Any question you wish I’d asked you?
“Favorite Denver chef?” Alex Seidel [Mercantile Dining & Provision, Fruition]. For anyone in this town that could have an ego, Alex is one of the most humble and hardworking dudes I know, and I’m proud to call him a friend.
Beast + Bottle is located at 719 East 17th Avenue. For more information, call 303-623-3223 or go to beastandbottle.com.