I have a bit of a love hate relationship with Italian restaurants. I’ve always been a saltimboca over spaghetti kind of girl and sometimes I feel like the only person in the world who isn’t partial to pizza. Having eaten my way around Northern Italy, I know that there is an edge to the cuisine – the simplicity, primacy of quality produce and seamless flavour combinations – that I truly enjoy, but too often Italian eateries serve up stodge over substance.
We have been spoiled in Dublin in recent years with Italian icons Luna and Etto reminding us that food from the Terra Madre can be sumptuous and sexy while remaining true to its roots – rustic and richly flavoured. Hotspots like San Lorenzo’s and Angelina’s have taken this concept and adapted it to create casual yet chic New York city style Italian diners, meaning the Italian restaurant has come a long way from some of the dingy trattorias of old. With Belfast fast becoming a go to destination for food lovers, I was keen to see if this trend had caught on North of the border.
Spending the weekend in the Northern Irish Capital for the BBC Good Food Show, my friend Rachel and I were in full on food gawker mode and were delighted to secure a booking in Coppi, which was packed to capacity when we arrived for our 9pm booking. Despite being located in a restaurant-saturated courtyard, Coppi had people waiting to be seated, always a good sign. We were shown to our table, which was roomy and comfortable despite the packed surroundings, lit by candles and the glow of low hanging copper lamps. Dark wood and black tiles with burgundy booths reminded me of our own Big Apple style Italian eateries and the friendly waiting staff and open kitchen added to the fun and laid back vibe.
We decided to start off with a selection of cichetti, Italian-inspired grazing bites which at £9 for 3 were too tempting to pass up. Truffled Duck Ravioli Fritters were polenta dusted, pipping hot and crisp with a sweet duck ragu filling and a silky parmesan mayo. Crispy Squid can be a dodgy choice, but as seafood frito misto is a classic we felt we should sample Coppi’s offering and we were pleased to find the calamari cooked just to the point of yielding without chewiness and not at all greasy, coated with a light chilli spiked tempura batter.
My favourite little bite however had to be Goat Meatballs with Marsala and Hazelnut Sauce. You don’t find goat appearing on Irish menus enough I feel, but with NI producers like Broughgammon working on bringing the mountain meat into fashion here hopefully we will see more of it. This dish was rustic and comforting, almost gamey goat meat with a chunky, well reduced tomato based sauce spiked with sweet marsala and toasty hazelnut went down a treat.
Already a little full from our cichetti, we powered through two of Coppi’s seafood based starters. Rachel opted to try the Seafood Gratin, which was served in a petite skillet with mussels and prawns enrobed in a rich mussel cream sauce spiked with the perfect amount of lemon for balance. A buttery crisp crumb topping provided a perfect textural contrast and what was left of the sauce was happily mopped up with chunky ciabatta, getting a thumbs up from Rachel.
My Sauteed King Scallops arrived on a bed of luscious creamed cauliflower and shards of crisped proscuitto – a simple and classic combination which leaves no room for error. To cut a long story short, Rachel didn’t get a bite of this, my scallops were perfectly plump, sweet and soft underneath a browned butter caramelised crust. Somehow the cauliflower didn’t feel heavy or claggy, again well balanced with acidity and spot on seasoning. This was a perfect example of light handedness in the kitchen and confidence in simplicity.
Rachel is a bit of an Italophile, so much so she has planned her wedding in Rome next year and she always loves a good traditional pasta dish. When we spotted that all pasta in Coppi is handmade, her decision to opt for Prawn and Chorizo Linguine was made easily. The star of the show was the hand cut linguine, rustic and not uniform, clearly rich with egg yolk and cooked with a bite. Doused in chorizo rendered spicy liquor and nicely cooked sweet petite prawns – this was simple Italian fare, respecting the quality of ingredients and interfering very little with them.
As I tend to opt for meatier piatti secondi, the Autumn special of Lamb Rump called to me. Earthy and subtle honeyed parsnip purée and lamb made a scrumptious pairing, along with a rich tomato jus, savoy cabbage and sweet sautéed violet potato. This rustic dish was a fine example of the sweet and savoury balance that I so crave from dishes and transported me to the Piedmont hills with my mountain of lamb – my only gripe being I prefer my lamb quite rare and this was closer to medium.
As ever, dessert was accompanied by my protestations that I couldn’t eat another bite – which proved to be a lie. We decided to share a Chocolate and Salted Caramel Torta, just for a little taste. The slice was innocuous looking but turned out to be the most deliciously mouth enveloping, truffle like torta – reminding me of River Cottage’s chocolate nemesis, sinfully rich and taken over the edge with salt spiked caramel layer – a little gasp worthy to say the least.
You could never finish this beauty alone but you would wake in the night with regret for leaving a bite behind, and politeness was left aside when it came to the last bite on this occasion! Think Italy’s finest export – Nutella, as the base was studded with hazelnut and gooey caramel, people please, this is indecent. A scoop of vanilla gelato provided the same pleasing contrast of the milk to your cookies – so simple but an absolute knockout dish.
Beyond full, we stayed and nursed our bottle of Piedmont Gavi, young, crisp and zippy, not unlike the atmosphere in Coppi, which we happily drank in too. I have scarcely ever seen a restaurant as full nearing 11pm, but the beauty of it was the chilled out vibe which encouraged lingering. As well as serving stellar Italian fare for all tastes, Coppi is like a late bar you don’t want to leave with a cracking cocktail menu to keep you wanting more. Lively and packed with a stylish young set nibbling cichetti and imbibing hand crafted cocktails, Coppi is Italian with an endearing Northern accent.
2 St Anne’s Square
Belfast BT1 2LR
T: +44 28 9031 1959
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that in mind, I realised baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving.