(Published by South Bay Accent in April, 2013.)
Noodles traipse through various world cuisines but soar to a higher plane across Italy. The heartbreaker for South Bay pasta fans is that it’s available on many menus but rarely achieves greatness here. That changed in the summer of 2010 with the opening of Osteria Coppa in San Mateo, helmed by chef Channan Kamen, who has extraordinary pasta chops from running the noodle show at San Francisco’s stellar Quince and working at a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants in various regions of Italy.
His tagliolini with smoked trout and tarragon takes this thin noodle from Emilia-Romagna and makes it sublimely toothy, swirling around bits of fish, hits of lemon, cream and licorice backnotes. Another Emilia-Romagna stalwart, Tagliatelle Bolognese, is perfection squared in his hands. The long-cooked meat sauce melds to Kamen’s chewy but tender narrow noodles in a duet of irresistible textures and flavors.
Then there’s his pappardelle with braised short-ribs and horseradish in which these wide, firm Tuscan noodles wear bits of succulent meat and an elusive whisper of near heat. Pasta offerings rotate with seasonal ingredients and are never less than magnificent. Like scialatielli from the Amalfi coast, rich, thick ribbons with flecks of basil that Kamen might pair with silky eggplant or punctuate with moist hunks of rock cod and crisp broccoli. Tajarin, yolk-rich golden strands from Piedmont. Venetian bigoli – thick tubes made from whole-wheat flour. Peerless filled pastas like agnolotti dal plin or raviolo. They are all flawless and — remarkably — reside on a moderately priced menu.
Much is made in foodie circles over the fact he is the cousin of Quince’s owner/chef, Michael Tusk — as if cooking skills were an inheritable trait like curly hair. What’s more likely is that Kamen is a self-made perfectionist who got hands-on schooling in San Francisco and Italy in how to turn noodles — or anything edible — into bewitchment.
While the pasta easily holds its own with any San Francisco spot, this farm-to-table contemporary Italian restaurant takes similar care with the entire menu. Besides the hand-crafted pastas, the kitchen cures salumi in house and dough is hand-stretched for excellent thin-crust pizzas whose ingredients are added at different stages to produce optimal textures.
Antipasti are utterly delicious, starting with greaseless but crispy fritto misto in which copious quantities of calamari, shrimp and fennel are expertly fried and delivered with two sauces: mild aioli and tangy marinara. Or just revel in it with a squeeze of lemon alone. Beet salad has become an anachronism but Kamen’s version levitates far above the norm with the earthy, sweet, marinated roots astride softened kale leaves and artichokes in a magical grain-mustard vinaigrette. Even the simple green salad is a delight, paired with seasonal citrus like blood orange and crunchy pistachios.
Like Kamen’s inestimable pastas, his pizzas are masterful. Generously sized, the pies achieve the ideal crisp, blistered crust and wear an array of house-cured meats, seasonal veggies and other ingredients. A handful of rotating choices is on the menu as well as a special pizza of the day.
After the cavalcade of starches, the primi (main course) list is understandably short. But indulge yourself anyway because Kamen’s lamb spezzatino is that good. Luscious little hunks of lamb are stewed into tenderness and plopped on top of sublimely creamy polenta with some spoonfuls of an herby sauce. The one fish choice during our visit was local swordfish with olive spread accompanied by sunchokes and spinach.
For pure eating pleasure, order some of the fantastic contorni (side dishes), like grilled broccoli with anchovy and lemon topped with breadcrumbs or earthy-sweet Brussels sprouts cut into wedges and roasted with bacon. Or dive into more of that great polenta with mascarpone cheese.
Osteria Coppa rounds the final bend toward the finish line with great success in the dessert menu, which features an array of house-made ice creams and a perfectly puckery Meyer lemon sorbet that tastes exactly like the fruit. However, the butterscotch budino – a dense, rich pudding — is the star with stiff competition from a rich, deeply bittersweet flourless chocolate cake. Though it’s not a constant on the menu, the kitchen has been known to make an indescribable chocolate tart inspired by Italian Baci, divine little chocolate-hazelnut truffles, which is a caloric felony but worth it.
While the food is serious here, the prices and decor are not, with the latter featuring a loft-like ceiling, rough wood floor, open dining rooms, paper-topped tables, huge front windows and a back patio playfully called the Coppa Cabana. Matching the laid-back decor are young, accommodating servers who will happily steer you toward the most otherworldly choices on the menu.
The success of Osteria Coppa demonstrates a few facts. San Mateo has emerged as a foodie mecca in recent years and award givers, reviewers — and most importantly, customers — have showered Osteria Coppa with swooning accolades. Thus for discriminating South Bay diners, it’s a no-brainer to head north while still cutting their drive time to San Francisco and get equivalent grub for less money.
Sure, Flour and Water, A16, Perbacco and other city sizzlers for weapons-grade Italian food deliver the goods. But Kamen’s humble trattoria is definitely in this rarefied company.
Osteria Coppa, 139 S. B St., San Mateo, (650) 579-6021, www.osteriacoppa.com
HOURS: Lunch weekdays 11:30-2. Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5-9; Friday-Saturday, 5-10. Reservations recommended.
PRICES: Appetizers: $4-13; pasta: $18-20; pizza: $12-18; entrees: $25-26; desserts: $4-8.