Back in Tuscany Again, This Time in the East Village

The evening got off to a bad start. We had been to a play downtown, and I had picked a restaurant I thought was near the theater. But when we emerged–late and hungry–into a driving rainstorm, this proved not to be the case and I had, of course, forgotten the exact address. After trying four broken pay phones, my companion, who was drenched, lost his temper.

“Forget about it,” he said. “I’ll put you in a cab and go on home.”

But after trying one more pay phone, we discovered we were just half a block from the restaurant. We waded down East Ninth Street, past little boutiques and galleries whose charm was totally wasted on us at this time and, shoes squelching, arrived at I Coppi.

Gone were the dangling pay phones and the tenements with their garbage cans chained to the railings of the front stoop: We were in Tuscany. The hostess led us through a beamed, rustic dining room which was warm and cozy, with exposed-brick walls and pinewood floors. It was decorated with ceramic plates and a mural showing the sort of view of the Italian countryside that any self-respecting British expatriate retiring to “Chiantishire” expects to see from the living room of his house.

She seated us near the open kitchen, which was under an archway, where we could see a brick pizza oven and a couple of cooks at work. A wonderful smell of baking bread filled the air.

“This is just the ticket,” said my friend, hanging his wet coat over the back of a chair. But he was still not quite himself. “I’m not going to drink anything tonight.” Just then the waiter appeared with the wine list. My companion glanced at it briefly. “Well, maybe one glass of wine.”

The list is mainly Tuscan with interesting selections from smaller vineyards (including a 1985 Sassicaia for $1,000, if you are in the mood). We ordered a bottle of Chianti Classico and the waiter put a basket of bread on the table. It was that wonderful salt-free bread you get in Tuscany, warm and crusty, tasting as if it had just come out of the oven. We wanted to keep on eating it, so we decided to share an antipasto platter as a starter: prosciutto di Parma, garlicky Tuscan salami, thin slices of bresaola (dried beef), crostini of mashed chicken livers and marinated artichokes. We ate everything, including all the bread.

For the main course, I had rabbit in a marvelous piquant sauce of tomatoes, herbs and black olives, served with polenta. My companion, who was now back in good form, chose roast pork with fennel and mustard greens. It was good too, redolent of herbs and fruity olive oil, though not as good as the rabbit. We also had a side order of cavolo nero, Tuscan black kale, which you don’t see on many menus. Coppi serves it in soup with polenta or as a side order with garlic and olive oil, and it’s delicious.

For dessert, we had the torta della nonna (grandmother’s tart), which was rather dull, and also, because our waiter insisted on it, the tiramisù. “It’s such a cliché,” my friend complained. But we were glad we tried it because it was rich, creamy and chocolaty, just the thing to wind up a terrific meal.

A few nights later, when I returned with my family, we had another wonderful dinner. We began with carpaccio of tuna–very fresh, paper-thin slices dressed with green peppercorns, herbs and olive oil. My son and I shared a pizza margherita, with a thin, crisp crust topped with tomato, mozzarella and basil. It, too, was excellent.

The game festival was still under way (many of those dishes are now on the regular menu), and when my son saw they offered wild boar, his eyes lit up. In the French Asterix comic book series of which he is a fan, every adventure of the plucky little band of Gauls undefeated by Caesar culminates in a raucous feast with wild boar turning on a spit. At I Coppi, the boar was stewed and served with polenta.

“A little bland but good,” was his verdict after a couple of bites.

Pappardelle alla lepre (with wild hare sauce) was not the least bit bland, however, the chunks of pleasantly gamy hare in a dark, winy sauce on delicate ribbons of pasta. Roast pheasant was tender and juicy, served with terrific roast potatoes with rosemary that had golden, crusty skins but were nicely floury inside.

We finished with a dark chocolate mousse topped with whipped cream, and a bowl of panna cotta garnished with slices of orange. “This place is a find,” said my husband as we left.

It is a find. I Coppi isn’t a typical Lower East Side restaurant at all, showing more of a sophisticated uptown polish. (It reminds me a bit of Il Cantinori, several blocks west.) Prices are high for the neighborhood, with more than half the first courses $11 or over, and pastas around $18 a portion. The restaurant is owned by Lorella Innoccenti, who worked for Joe Allen and Pino Luongo, and her husband John Brennan (who put the place together from salvaged beams from Brooklyn and barn wood). It’s very much a family operation: The chef is Ms. Innocenti’s mother, Alberta, and her father, Lido, bakes the wonderful bread.

In May, when I Coppi opens its garden (which will be canopied), I will be happy to eat there even when it rains.

I Coppi

* *

432 East Ninth Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A

254-2263

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Expensive, with eclectic selection of Tuscan wines from small estates

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Dinner main courses $13 to $23

Brunch: Sunday noon to 4 P. M.

Dinner: Sunday to Thursday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 11:30 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor