Words you never heard spoken on The Andy Griffith Show: “Hey, Barn. Let's skip the diner tonight. Grab Thelma Lou and we'll go get somethin' Eye-talian.” And yet, if you happen to be on Andy Griffith Parkway in his hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina – the town upon which aspects of Mayberry were modeled – you can, indeed, do just that.
Coppola's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant is not located in the touristy downtown part of Mt. Airy, where the Bluebird Diner, the Snappy Lunch, Barney's, Leon's and a number of other real or imagined Mayberry eateries are located. It's out on the highway (actually the intersection of US Highways 52 and 601) sandwiched into a strip mall anchored by a Food Lion on one end and a Lowe's on the other. It's where the real locals go.
The place racked up some good mentions on the online review sites that I generally avoid like the plague because they are largely populated by palate-numbed wannabes who wouldn't know authentic Italian food if it were dumped in their laps. But some of our friends had eaten there and gave it a mixed review. So, naturally, I had to go.
My wife and I went for lunch on a mid-week afternoon just past the peak of service. Nothing derogatory or exciting about the décor and overall ambiance. It's a typical Italian-American theme, complete with Italian pictures on the walls and Italian music playing through the sound system. But it's very open, welcoming, and clean. (On a side note, the health inspectors in this part of the Tarheel State must be really tough; I've not yet encountered a place rated higher than 97, which is the rating posted for Coppola's.)
The four page menu was quite extensive, but the third item from the top on the left-hand column of the first page almost caused me to head for the door. “Brushetta.” A-a-a-ar-r-rggggh! It's not bad enough when people say it that way, but, mio Dio, do they actually have to spell it like that!!? And that was so weird because everyplace else on the menu were wonderfully correct Italian dishes like Rigatoni Arrabbiata and Rigatoni Puttanesca and Linguini Pescatore – “brushetta” sticks out like a very sore thumb.
Anyway, service was prompt. A gentleman who did not offer his name was very friendly and helpful withal. My wife had previously perused a menu posted on one of the aforementioned online sites and had decided on the Shrimp Parmigiana, listed thereupon as a house specialty. Well....it's not on the actual menu anymore; another reason to be wary of the online sites. Our solicitous waiter attempted to see if the kitchen could whip one up, but, alas, there were no shrimp to be found. Rather than wait for the next truck, my wife considered ordering her standard Baked Ziti, but ultimately decided on the Meat Ravioli with a House Salad and Gorgonzola dressing.
I, of course, went straight for a pizza, my personal litmus test for anyplace that posts “Pizzeria” above the door. Coppola's boasts “New York Style Pizza” in large letters. They offer a Neopolitan Round and Thin and a Sicilian that is square and thick. They feature the usual butcher shop and vegetable garden ingredients with which most Americans overload their pizza, but I always like to go for the basic, classic pizza. If you put more than sauce, cheese, and maybe one or two toppings on a pizza, you've created a glaring mish-mash of flavors that overpower one another and destroy the basic concept of what a pizza is supposed to be. I topped my simple cheese Neopolitan with a little ham, prosciutto or pancetta not being options.
My wife's salad arrived. A very basic salad of lettuce, shredded carrots, slices of cucumber and tomato. Curiously senza formaggio, but a nice salad nonetheless. The dressing gave her a brief pause; she had expected the usual creamy Gorgonzola, but was instead presented with something that resembled a vinaigrette. Closer examination of the menu disclosed that it was, indeed, a Gorgonzola Vinaigrette. But she pronounced it good. She also heaped praise on her Meat Ravioli. A generous portion of filled pasta in a flavorful tomato sauce topped with a lavish supply of good, stretchy mozzarella.
In case you weren't aware, one of the principal ways to judge good mozzarella is by a stretch test, the simplest form of which involves nothing more than a fork. You just get a good lump of melted mozzarella on your fork and lift vertically. The cheese should string out for quite some distance before breaking. The longer the strings, the better the cheese. (A good cheese can stretch to eleven or twelve inches.)
But we digress. The tomato sauce was smooth and lovely with a fulsome tomato flavor not masked by an overabundance of herbs, spices, and seasonings. We were assured that it is fatta in casa (made in house).
My wife was quite impressed by the warm bread that accompanied her meal. I sampled it and found it to be very good for a commercially produced frozen and reheated product. The waiter confirmed my assessment of the bread, which left my wife wondering, “How could you tell?” To which query I merely smiled inscrutably. “I just can.” But the crust was nicely crisp and crunchy over a soft crumb that had a hole pattern and an overall texture that was reasonably characteristic of homemade.
The pizza was quite good. The crust was pretty darn close to the perfect Neopolitan model of being thin and crispy on the outside with a slight chewiness on the inside. I could discern that it was baked in a gas-fired oven rather than one that was fueled by wood or coal, but at least it didn't come off some contemptible conveyor belt like so many American pizzas do. It, too, was perfectly topped with the same delectable sauce and stretchy cheese that covered the ravioli dish. The thin sliced ham, although nothing wildly exotic, added a nice flavor element to a pizza that was well above the Italian-American pizzeria norm.
When asked, our server cited the Baked Ziti as one the restaurant's top sellers. (Causing my wife to roll her eyes, but she was still quite satisfied with her alternate selection.) Besides pizza and pasta, Coppola's features a number of classic Italian-American seafood, chicken, veal, and vegetable dishes as well as a variety of sandwiches.
The restaurant has a tempting dessert menu full of things like Chocolate Decadence Torte, Turtle Truffle Mousse, and the standards Tiramisu and Cannoli.
For a small place in a small town, an adequate wine menu is available as are a selection of domestic and imported beers.
Prices are very reasonable, parking is plentiful, and dress is casual. No reservations required or accepted. Coppola's is open 11 am to 10 pm Monday through Thursday, 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday, and from noon to 10 on Sunday.
Word of caution: for some reason unknown to any of the employees I asked, Coppola's address is listed incorrectly on most websites and even in the local telephone book. They are not at 1044 Old US Hwy 52 S. They are at 692 S. Andy Griffith Parkway, Ste 107, Mt. Airy NC 27030. The phone number, at least, is correct in these sources – (336) 789-8341.
Also, it should be noted that the Mt. Airy Coppola's is not affiliated with any of the other area establishments of the same name. “It's just a popular name, I guess,” was the best explanation I could get. I suppose so. After all, Francis Ford Coppola has done quite well with it for many years.
Bottom line, if you're looking for good Italian-American fare and if you want to eat where Andy and Barney and Aunt Bee and Opie and Floyd and all the rest would probably eat in the Mt. Airy/Mayberry area, Coppola's Pizzeria & Italian Restaurant is a very good choice.