Recently an acquaintance, preparing for empty-nesthood, stated that she would be taking a “gap year.” Simultaneously I was aghast — how privileged! — and enchanted — how genius! If you, too, are eager for a semester away, make it easy: come to Portland and spend some of your time at Cooperativa, sipping delicious coffee, snacking on pizzette, watching hip locals come and go as the weather regularly switches from soft rain to brazen sun.
Located on the edge of Portland’s Soho-esque Pearl neighborhood, this Italian-inspired modern market runs the length of the block in a black brick building, the tall industrial doors welcoming you in. On this spring morning the space is bright, with soaring lofty ceilings, floor to ceiling windows, and concrete terrazzo floors. One is happy amongst the quiet buzz of a Thursday morning: a couple gathers provisions in the market holding a bag of braising greens, a jar of preserved lemons, hazelnut-finished pork sausages and chilied anchovies. Two women talk business over cappuccinos and pignoli cookies, and a Barbour-clad visitor orders the tagliatelle alla Bolognese for an early lunch. Folks and their dogs are outside at cafe tables under the protection of a glass eave overhang. One spends half the morning perched on a stool by a window, sipping a Spella latte — warm, rich, nutty and round with a hint of honey — with perfectly steamed milk.
It is easy to feel like a local here and one could spend the day at this Mercato Centrale.
After coffee and a frittata sandwich for a leisurely breakfast, stock a tote with imported pantry items — there are at least seven kinds of canaroli rice for risotto to choose from. Add a bunch of dried sustainably grown flowers from Coy + Co, and a bottle of well-priced (Italian, naturally) wine with a handwritten description on a tag hanging around its neck. Take a break for lunch and don’t miss the thin crust square slices of pizza graced with bresaola, al fungo (local mushrooms), the classic Roman patate, the addictive cacio e pepe, the rossa (“just” tomato sauce), and carne bianca —– prosciutto and arugula. If yours is to go, it is wrapped in brown paper just like in Italy. Nostalgia!
Handmade pasta, tenderly rolled out in the kitchen in front of you, with a prepared sauce, makes a perfect supper. Later you can return to the bar for neighborhood company and a delicious spritz.
“The underpinning of Cooperativa is a focus on the philosophy of how Italians live and eat and present their local goods” says Anna Corporeal, co-owner with Chef Sarah Schafer. Sarah, who, prior to founding Irving Street Kitchen, another Portland favorite and neighborhood staple, was the first female sous chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City. The two have designed a unique food system in Cooperativa, which they refer to as a gastronomic ecosystem where, for example, a dinner for two supports eight local businesses and has community woven through from seed to plate. Lynette Aguirre, general manager, completes the all women trio running the place.
The focus is surely on being an authentic Italian-inspired culinary experience, however their vision is founded in community, a collaborative system involving the market and restaurant, farmers and local providers, neighbors and visitors. It is, conceptually, a village. Farmer Amanda might come in with bags of greens, and drop off a jar of plum jam for Chef Sarah while picking up trimmings from the sustainably grown Coy + Co plants, adding to her compost that later she shares with the botanists. “Our life dream”, says Anna, “is seeing the connections, and community that happens here”.
The bar, at the south end of the 5,000 square foot space, with architectural hints of Brunelleschi’s arches and a florentine light gray palate, big marble counter, tables by the giant windows and blue velvet sofas in the back, is utterly comfortable, urban and just plain fun. A weekday classic might be either the Cooperativa Negroni or Spritz mixed with cappelletti and served with a orange twist and an olive. Perfetto!
Try the bright “Sophia Loren” – blanco tequila, campari, lime, grapefruit and ginger, or the “Venetian Holiday” featuring vodka and elderflower, a splash of vermouth plus Cooperativa limoncello blend making it “perfect for a sunny gondola ride”.