Cooperativa Didn’t Plan on a Pandemic, but the Market-Cafe Hybrid Turned Out to Be Ready for It

When you can’t travel at all, food is travel.

On Cooperativa's online paninoteca menu, the mortadella sandwich is listed as a mortadella sandwich ($12). But the label on its paper wrapping bears a different legend: "Bologna" sandwich.

The air quotes are the Italian grocery-cafe-restaurant's way of telling you that yes, mortadella is just fancier—and fattier—bologna. But the emulsified meat is also of Bologna, where Cooperativa co-owner Sarah Schafer studied pasta-making.

Cooperativa is all about the vibe and flavors of Bologna, of Florence, of Rome and the "slow food" movement that was born in Italy. But there's plenty of Portland DNA. In addition to Italian-accented food, drink and sundries, Schafer and Anna Caporael's Pearl District market has eight local vendor partners who provide much of what you'll find inside, including Spella Caffè Coffee, Pinolo Gelato, Tails & Trotters, and Real Good Food.

Cooperativa was already in the planning stages long before COVID-19, but it's now perfectly suited to our current takeout, cook-at-home reality. It takes up an entire Portland city block, with lots of outdoor seating, and the Willamette River and two parks are just around the corner.

For Schafer, Cooperativa's inspiration was Mercato Centrale in Florence, an indoor market where you can move from butcher shop to pasteria to wine bar to produce stands to spice merchants to food stalls. It's the Italian way: a hallmark of community and day-to-day life.

"It's also the Italian way by taking it easy," says Schafer. "Come in, have a glass of wine. Oh, I'm hungry, I'll have a slice of pizza. Or I'll get this sandwich from the market. Or, oh yeah, I need to pick up these other things."

Of course, this concept isn't wholly foreign. Portland long had Pastaworks on Hawthorne Boulevard and City Market in Northwest, the precursors to Providore Fine Foods. Another obvious analog is Eataly, where tourists in places like New York or Las Vegas can pretend that they're in Parma or Modena. Now, we might settle for pretending we're in New York or Las Vegas. When you can't travel at all, food is travel.

Cooperativa is a grocery store, a coffee shop, an ice cream place, a sandwich shop, a bar, a restaurant and a pizzeria. Sean Coyne, formerly of Pizza Maria, helped develop the two different kinds of dough. There's Pizza Bianca, the not quite focaccialike bread that, according to Schafer, was originally used in Rome to test the ovens. It's for sandwiches as well as in the morning, including a breakfast pizza bianca with egg, asiago cheese, prosciutto, or all of the above ($6-$9) and a Nutella pizza bianca ($3 for a slice, $15 for a whole).

The other pizzas, available each day after noon, are al taglio, or "by the cut," the most famous of which can be found at Rome's Forno Campo de' Fiori bakery. It's square, relatively thin, crispy and minimally topped—the better to appreciate the flavor of the dough and the ingredients.

Both Schafer and Caporael say their favorite is the Pizza Rossa, which is brushed with marinara, slivered garlic and oregano, no cheese, though Caporael likes to add a hint of pecorino ($4). But you can also get a regular margherita ($5.50), the classic combination of potato and rosemary ($5.50) and several more elaborate options, including broccoli rabe with ricotta, roasted garlic and abruzzo sauce ($7) or salumi and capicola with marinara and stracchino cheese ($7.50).

When Schafer's working at the pasta station, people can come right up to her, hoping to buy fresh tagliatelle or agnolotti practically right out of her hand. That's something new.

"For me, being the chef always behind the curtain, it's like, I finally get to talk to these people," she says. "It just blows my mind every day. What they say, what they ask. It's fun to be able to interact with people and sort of guide them through what they should be pairing with their pastas, or talk to them over pizza."

Mortadella will also eventually feature a pizza with pistachio, as well as within Schafer's favorite pasta: coscarelli, which is stuffed with a mixture of mortadella, pork and prosciutto. Schafer's Bolognese ($13) and sage butter ($12) are available as sauce to go, and prepared lasagna's coming. Among the salads are the Cooperativa ($10), with treviso, radicchio, escarole and anchovy Parmesan dressing, and a tuna conserva ($14) with white beans, onions, fennel and baby kale. Schafer's trademark Irving Street dessert, the caramel budino ($9.50), slots in nicely on an Italian menu, where it's joined by a chocolate counterpart and, eventually, she says, Nutella.

At the bar is Joel Schmeck, formerly of Irving Street, with a mix of Oregon and Italian wines, a Negroni on tap, and such other cocktails as the "Grazie Mille," made with two local gins, housemade limoncello and prosecco, and a "Milano Mule" with vodka, amaro and chinotto soda. The sight of the empty bar, with its living-roomlike group seating options, really drives home what Cooperativa wants to be in normal times: full of people, whether for morning coffee, lunch, or snacking and drinking after work before bringing things home for dinner. But at least you can still do those things, without the social bustle.

"The people who find comfort in cooking, they can get their ingredients," says Caporael. "The people who find comfort in being able to pick something up and make it quickly, great. And for the people who just want to be fed? We have that too."


Number of seats: 28

Distance between tables or seats: 7-15 feet

Safety measures: Staff sanitize high-touch surfaces every 30 minutes; optional order with QR code at the table; sanitizers at each seating area and at each entry. Small portable heaters are available for outdoor tables upon request.

Peak hours: 12:30-1:30 pm and 5-5:30pm

Cooperativa, 1250 NW 9th Ave., 971-275-2762, 7 am-8 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Pizzeria noon-8 pm Tuesday-Saturday, bar 3-8 pm Thursday-Saturday.

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