Friday, May 28, 2010

Campagnola: Old School And Proud Of It

Get Your Sinatra On. Tonight.

I use to think I was some sort of Italian restaurant expert here in NYC. I mean, I love this food… cook this food… study this food. I eat out A LOT. I cook at home A LOT. I take suggestions, walk into places I shouldn’t… and my eyes well up when I find perfect pasta dishes.

But the fact is, there are just so many good Italian spots… (well known, and not so well known…) that is not humanly possible to stay on top of all of them. Additionally, many are famous for this or that… not everything.

A few weeks ago I was invited to a spot I had heard about…but had never visited…. Campagnola.

I had heard the following babble:

• this is a good old boys club
• wants to be Rao’s
• is crammed with Upper West Siders with expense accounts
• is crammed with Upper West Siders who don’t care about expense accounts
• can often serve spectacular food
• reeks of Sinatra and sweet tomatoes

Having this opinion, I was off to 74th and 1st Ave for what I was hoping would be a terrific experience.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Campagnola is old school and proud of it. This is a smallish, narrow space that will remind you of about 1000 similar NYC spaces…. tight.

As I entered, I noticed that tucked into the front right corner was a piano… resting across from a tiny narrow bar occupied by neighbor regulars. There was laughing and kissing going on at the door between the owners and his clientele… a good sign. It had all of the makings of a quintessential neighborhood gem.

After a few minutes of people watching… and with a group of 5 or 6, we made our way into the back of the space, squeezed around a 4 top and began to order… and I was glad we did.

Let me pause for a moment to interject one thing…. it takes real balls to charge $45. for veal parm, but this place does it, and gets away with it. You’ve been warned.

The wait staff at Campagnola has been around for many many years, and it shows. Although there is a menu, nearly anything can be ordered, in any combination… as long as you are OK with the creative billing that will come out on the backend. Lucky for me, I was a guest of very gracious hosts… who also had friends in high places at the restaurant. Very lucky for me ☺

There were a bevy of specials on this night, and honestly, I could have ordered just about any of them. From toothy handmade pastas to very fresh fish (on this night Dover Sole), it was all there. After hearing about all of the dishes, we made a few choices and the parade began.

First… perfectly fried Soft Shell Crabs… hot and crispy. Having eaten about 5000 of these in my lifetime, they were honestly about as good as you can get. Somebody in the back really knows what they are doing. Kudos.

Next were a platter of salumi, olives, artichokes and eggplant with cracker breads… perfectly seasoned and arranged, and inhaled by the hungry table in about 90 seconds. Fairly standard stuff, but still, well done.

The entrees began to arrive and I finally began to realize what all of the fuss was about.

The pastas are perfect. Cooked to perfection, and sauced perfectly.

The meats were also cooked to perfection. A grilled baby lamb chop. A steak with cognac and cream. And a veal Milanese… pounded and breaded, fried to perfection and topped with baby arugula.

The Dover Sole lightly crusted and pan sautéed in lemon and butter.

The meal had turned into a feast, and dishes kept coming. Fried zucchini. Chicken with artichokes and prosciutto. Orecchiette with sausage, broccoli, cream and shallots. God help me.

By the time dessert came into play, I was toast. This is the way to eat. And all of it was delicious.

The verdict?

Well, in the end, Campagnola turned out to be exactly what I thought it would be. Classic. Old school. Comfortably snobby. Cramped by cozy. Charming. Serious about cooking.

The best Italian food in New York? Some would argue yes, but I would say no. Certainly worth the trip… but this is traditional Italian eats in the style of Da Umberto… or Il Mulino… not Babbo or SD26. The prices are higher than average for this style of cooking in New York, but you get what you pay for in this city, and the food holds up. Even though it seems that each dish carries a $10 surcharge for enjoying the room… nobody seemed to mind. Kinda like splurging on a double porterhouse for 2 at your favorite NYC steakhouse.

So if you are thinking of going, call now. There is a reason it’s well known. People book reservations.

Next, if you don’t reside in the Upper West, get up there. There are quality restaurants and they need to see you (Felidia, etc… ).

And last, splurge. This isn’t just an Italian restaurant, this is a slice of classic New York. Get out there and enjoy these blessings. There is something special happening at Campagnola... and you should share in what is a special night out.

1382 First Ave., New York, NY 10021
nr. 74th St