Review: Coppa Cafe in Flagstaff is inventive, exquisite, essentially Arizona
Internet-stalking your friends can yield surprising dividends, if you’re smart enough to cash them in.
Perhaps four years ago, I glanced at a notification showing that a dear friend with exceptional taste in all things edible had checked into Coppa Cafe in Flagstaff. Though promptly sidetracked by two dozen other distractions, I raised an eyebrow when he checked in at the same restaurant again the very next weekend. When he checked in and dined at Coppa Cafe for the third consecutive weekend, both eyebrows jumped into my hairline.
This friend lives in Surprise.
If I had half a brain and two fewer children, I’d have immediately booked a table for the following Saturday. But instead, Coppa Cafe lingered on the list of places I really, really need to visit for an inordinate stretch of time.
Coppa Cafe is a special little restaurant, and anyone who isn’t paying attention should be.
A convoluted path brought husband-and-wife team Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti to Flagstaff. Connecticut-born Konefal, a Northern Arizona University grad, met Fioravanti, a Brazilian native of Italian descent, at culinary school in Italy. It was the starting line for a romantic and gastronomic partnership that would wind its way across two continents on a trail marked with master chefs and Michelin stars.
Konefal trained in Europe and spent six years working under renowned chef Daniel Humm, both in San Francisco and at New York’s culinary landmark Eleven Madison Park. He was tapped as executive chef of Boston’s Bina Osteria, where a warm reception in early 2009 suggested that he and Fioravanti — also his pasty chef — had found a sweet gig and a long-term home.
Unfortunately, 2009 was unkind to more than a few businesses, and when difficult economic conditions led Bina’s owners to ask that he rein in food costs, Konefal declined and the couple left. Eventually, they found their way back to Konefal’s collegiate stomping grounds in Flagstaff. After a stint running The Piano Room, they launched Coppa Cafe, the kind of covert strip mall gastro-nexus that every intrepid food geek dreams of discovering.
More about charm than polish
Approaching from the south, you can slide between Sizzler and Denny’s, cruise past a phalanx of gas stations, blow by Chili’s and Wendy’s and easily skip right past Coppa Cafe en route to Flagstaff’s charming historic downtown. But it’s here on the fringe where something nascent is bubbling up, at once European and Arizonan, fed by the foraged fruits of the land.
Coppa Cafe is more about charm than polish. A Gustav Klimt meets Rachel Ashwell interior feels somehow older than its six years, an eclectic collection of vintage chairs under a whitewashed stamped tin ceiling and room for a couple of dozen souls to dine, linger and hum along to French jazz.
Servers tend toward the young, earnest and charmingly awkward end of the scale, which one could describe as short on finesse or long on sincerity. A dusky evening and a glass of wine in hand makes the latter traits feel more correct.
It starts with a dish that reads like a literary abstract for the meal ahead, a perfect, crisp baguette served with two spreads: sweet and lush cactus butter and a fragrant Ponderosa pine mousse, like the verdant breath of the forest captured in a bottle and whipped to an airy consistency. This is the distillation of Coppa’s environs on the table — not of cowboy cuisine and the old Southwest, but finely attuned to the essence of Arizona, of the land itself.
If aroma is fine cuisine’s stealthy superpower, Konefal’s team of cured meats deserve their own comic book franchise, mortal cuts of meat transmogrified into superhuman slivers of prosciutto, coppa and bresaola not by radiation but by salt, herbs and time. Stop... don’t just pop them in your mouth. First, let them linger under your nose for a moment while you draw a few deep breaths. Garlic, fennel and the sweet scent of pork fat waft up from the coppa, while the bresaola is redolent of red wine and clove. Sliced to an ethereal thinness, they’re a brief tease on the tongue until they melt away.
Starters set the tone
Soups ($8) change with the season, all chilled on my warm-weather visits, including a sweet onion soup as light and velvety as it was intense; and a neo-classic vichyssoise that dropped its lofty title and went unceremoniously as “potato and leek.”
A simple green salad ($8) is an understated delight when it’s this fresh and crisp, particularly when bolstered by a brisk punch of lemon. But a less conventional paddle cactus salad ($10) is downright effervescent. Slivers of tender cactus join orange segments, mesquite crisps and bits of gelée made from a fermented prickly pear cider to bracing and playful effect.
Konefal puts on a clinic with his beef tartare ($15), eye of round aged for two to three months and minced with exacting precision, old-school carne cruda with mineral intensity, barely seasoned with a touch of celery and a whisper of shaved cheese. Too delicate to sully with a sauce, Konefal sets it next to a dollop of quail egg emulsion dotted with olive puree, providing just a bit of rich, salty kick to apply as needed.
Here is the tripe for people who think they don’t like tripe ($12). Gently poached and slivered, it’s married with lamb belly in a luscious ragout, enriched with a touch of demi-glace and set against bits of fermented green beans for a lightly acidic pop. Topped with brioche crumbs and a flurry of cold smoked cured egg yolk, it’s at once delicate and robust, and flawlessly composed.
Mains, desserts: good to great
It’s perhaps too much to ask that Konefal maintain such a dizzying pace through the mains, but a few stumbles aside, the large plates are for the most part almost as good and no less interesting.
An exception is the steak frites ($31), refined if jarringly straightforward compared to the rest of the menu, which feels obligatory and, to be fair, is probably necessary to placate the person at the table who is uninterested in more esoteric fare. Skinny medallions of sirloin twice arrived overcooked — once a kitchen error, once a ticket error — and were drenched in a rich beef jus that was, on one visit, badly overly reduced. If their heart isn’t in this dish, it shows.
But what may have started as simple moules and frites has evolved into something completely beguiling, tender mussels ($28) steamed in a wine bath scented with cured lime, tarragon and spruce tips, the fruits of the sea sidling up to the fruits of the forest floor. They’re served with some very good fries, but their gorgeous broth yearns for another baguette.
Meanwhile, lamb ($31) arrives atop creamy and sweet Hopi blue corn pureed to an almost pudding-like consistency, haloed with slivered cactus and dots of olive and tomato to such vibrant effect that it makes the medium-well temperature of the meat twice as maddening.
Delicate cod confit ($31), however, suffers no such issues. It’s sweet and tender, embraced by tepary beans, sage and tomato, and it melts when you think the word “fork.” Delightfully chewy fusilli ($27) are bright and bathed in spring, topped with fresh asparagus and blasted with a powder of earthy Caesar’s mushrooms.
An abundant collection of sweets come courtesy of Fioravanti, whose presence in the kitchen has been inconsistent due to health issues. Diminutive delights like star anise truffles, chocolate bouchons and macarons in a rainbow of flavors show off her European training, though some skew dry. Not moving as quickly as they deserve to be?
It’s also an issue for the profiteroles ($10), stuffed with rich gelato and dripping with fine chocolate that saves the overbaked pastry. A nutty tart ($10), however, topped with slivers of fresh peach that mimic a rose’s petals, suffers no such malady.
Molten chocolate cake ($10) is beyond trite and butchered by 99.3 percent of the restaurants that serve it, but for a rare taste of what the dish should be, order it here. Set against vanilla gelato and a crisp almond tuille, it quivers and oozes like few can. On the other end of the spectrum, a sweet and effervescent flute of rose sorbet swimming in sparkling white wine ($9) is like a root beer float that earned its wings.
An essential restaurant
Good restaurants come and go, but rare is the moment when you dine at a place where you feel like something is happening.
Coppa Cafe isn’t always as tight as it could be, but its hits are rapturous, and even the occasional stumble is more interesting and engaging than most of what’s out there. Konefal and Fioravanti are doing something so unique and so tuned into its environment I wonder if this is the kind of place we’ll look back at years from now and say, “That’s where it started.”
Coverage of Coppa Cafe seems obsessed with the question of whether or not it’s the “best restaurant in Arizona.” To me, that’s insulting. Arizona isn’t Bartertown (even if the occasional haboob can make it look the part); and this isn’t Thunderdome, where two restaurants enter and one restaurant leaves.
The more pertinent question is whether something essential to contemporary Arizona cuisine is happening in a strip mall on the edge of Flagstaff.
I hope the answer is clear. Coppa Cafe is one of Arizona’s essential restaurants. I look forward to seeing what Konefal and Fioravanti continue to bring to the table, and as my friend discovered a while back, a drive up to Flagstaff can only whet the appetite.
Where: 1300 S. Milton Road, Flagstaff.
Hours: 3-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Saturdays. Dinner available after 5 p.m., brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sundays.
Details: 928-637-6813, coppacafe.net.
Price: $40-$60 per person, excluding beverage, tax and tip.
Stars: 4 (out of 5)
Restaurant review rating scale (stars based on food, service, ambience):
5 — Excellent
4 — Very good
3 — Good
2 — Fair
1 — Poor
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