It almost seems like chef Sarah Schafer and business partner Anna Caporael—both formerly of Irving Street Kitchen, which closed in June due to the pandemic—had a crystal ball. Back in January, when Schafer first discussed plans for their new Pearl District Italian food hall, Cooperativa, she told Portland Monthly that fine dining as we knew it was a thing of the past. “Diners no longer want a beautiful meal every night,” Schafer said. “People don’t want to sit down anymore.”
Well, maybe it’s not that we don’t want to sit down to a lengthy meal at a restaurant. But now that the option to do so safely at normal capacity is off the table, Cooperativa seems poised to usher a bit of everyday Italian indulgence into our pandemic lives, especially as the food hall continues to grow its in-progress offerings.
The new 5,000-square foot space, which softly opened last week, aims to be a one-stop shop for your Italian food needs, with Roman-style pizza available for outdoor dining or takeout; handmade dried and fresh pasta to cook at home; pints of Pinolo Gelato to go; coffee beans and espresso drinks (including the famous caffe shakerato) from Spella Caffe; fresh flowers from Coy & Co; and a market area with a small-but-growing selection of local produce, dairy, and meat.
Schafer, who studied pasta making in Bologna, plans to eventually offer five to seven different fresh pastas and sauces each day, drawing inspiration from various regions of Italy—think casoncelli, a pasta stuffed with mortadella, pork shoulder, and prosciutto cotto in a brown butter and sage sauce, or campanelle, bell-shaped pasta with a walnut cream sauce. She’s also selling varieties of her handmade dried pasta, including bucatini and campanelle. The eventual goal is to have made-to-order pasta available for outdoor (and indoor) dining one day, but with the pandemic, they’ve decided to only sell pasta for cooking at home for the time being.
Right next to the pasta station is Schafer’s Roman-style pizza. It’s a pan pizza that, at least visually, resembles a thin focaccia, though Caporael explains, “There’s just a different crumb and toothsomeness and development of flavor that you kind of have to eat it to know.” The dough is cold-fermented for several days and naturally leavened, giving it a distinct flavor and texture.
Classic pizzas like marinara, mushroom, and potato will sit alongside Schafer’s signature pizzas, like a sundried tomato and anchovy sauce pie topped with broccoli rabe and ricotta. Pizza is sold by the slice, or by the half-slice for those who’d like to try several different flavors. Whole pizzas can be made to order. Schafer also offers another style of pizza called pizza bianca, a thicker, oblong base topped simply with rosemary and sea salt, slathered with Nutella, or dotted with grapes and fennel seeds.
The market currently offers a small selection of fruit and veggies from local farms like Evans Farm Produce, Provision, and Sparrowhawk Farm, plus dry goods from Real Good Foods. In the coming weeks, Schafer and Caporael plan to offer curated grocery bundles, which can be ordered online for pickup and take a lot of the work out of grocery shopping. The neighborhood bundle, for instance, might include everyday cooking necessities like fresh pasta, sauce, veggies, fruit, eggs, fresh pork chops from Tails & Trotters, Cowbell cheese, a bag of Spella Coffee, and a bottle of wine or a pint of Pinolo Gelato. A picnic bundle might be filled with bread, salumi, heirloom tomatoes, and a stone fruit and burrata salad. A paninoteca, or Italian sandwich shop, is also forthcoming.
Starting in October, with each purchase at Cooperativa, guests can choose to make a donation to one of Schafer and Caporael’s chosen nonprofits, including p:ear, which supports homeless youth in the arts; Stone Soup, which helps formerly incarcerated people find work in the food industry; Self-Enhancement, Inc., which provides mentorship and academic support primarily to Black youth; and St. Andrew Nativity, a tuition-free private Catholic school for low-income students.
Of course, not everything planned for Cooperativa is pandemic-proof. The bar area, with its Italian-inspired, modern concrete arches, won’t have any guests seated at its counter to enjoy one of bar manager Joel Schmeck’s signature spritzes for a while to come. Even outdoor drinks are off the table while the food hall waits for its alcoholic beverage permit. Guests won’t be able to eat or mingle in the indoor seating area with its numerous tables or tall, modern banquettes designed for group dining. But there will be plenty of outdoor seating—in fact, the outdoor seating area extends along the full block outside of the food hall.
But Cooperativa was designed to be different from a restaurant, which its owners hope will make it better able to weather these times. Says Caporael: “We forbid the use of the word ‘restaurant’ here.” That’s because Cooperativa is meant to solve many of the cultural issues that Schafer and Caporael have encountered in their thirty years in the restaurant industry; many of the same issues that the restaurant industry is facing head on during this time of reckoning. One thing they wanted to change is the way they work with vendors—in this case, by showcasing their work front and center with the food hall model. The other aspect they wanted to change, both for themselves and for everyone who works at Cooperativa? Providing a healthy work-life balance for the owners and all employees, which is often non-existent in the restaurant industry. For starters, they’ll close from Sunday to Tuesday every week.
“The restaurant model has been so broken and so outdated, and just hasn’t been evolving as quickly as it needs to,” Caporael says. “We knew along with wanting to remain passionate and inspired and healthy ... we knew we wanted to create a different model.”
Cooperativa, 1250 NW 9th Ave Suite 100, Wed.-Sat. 7 a.m.-8 p.m., cooperativapdx.com