ESCAPE TO ITALY
Midtown’s Campagnolo Restaurant + Bar serves Italian comfort foods with welcoming smiles
Review restaurants long enough, and you’ll end up with a few chef friends. Chef Daniel Chance, who used to work at Campagnolo, is one of mine. He hasn’t been to my house for the holidays—we aren’t that close—but we’ve had some good chats, so when we see each other at food industry events we give one another a hug. A few years ago, he left Campagnolo and its sister restaurant, Henry’s Midtown Tavern, to join the team at Bacchanalia. According to his Facebook profile, he’s now executive chef at W.H. Stiles Fish Camp.
I hadn’t been back to Campagnolo Restaurant + Bar since he left. I like the restaurant, and I’ve had pleasant conversations with owner Maureen Kalmanson. But without a friend in the kitchen, the place didn’t hold the same compelling lure for me. Why cheat on a good a memory? Besides, Atlanta is so rich with dining options that I rarely frequent the same restaurant. As years have passed, however, I’ve grown curious: Could today’s Campagnolo live up to my fond memories of previous meals there? I decided it was time to find out. In recent weeks, I visited the restaurant twice, for a Sunday brunch and a Thursday dinner.
Opened in April 2012, Campagnolo is billed as having a “seasonal menu [that] offers Italian favorites with creative twists.” “Campagnolo” is Italian for “peasant,” and the name is a linguistic cue that this restaurant is an ethnic cousin to Peasant Bistro, Kalmanson’s former restaurant near Centennial Olympic Park.
The dining room at Campagnolo is staged in three acts: The front patio overlooks Piedmont; the entry room in this restored building (circa 1911) houses the bar and is dominated by dark woods; and the back room feels airy and white with its peek into the kitchen. Seating options include benches, chairs, stools and booths. Servers are attentive, know the menu, readily make recommendations and keep water glasses filled. Don’t know which wine to order? Ask and trust the suggested pairing will work. While food arrives to the table at an appropriate temperature, staff members don’t appear to be rushing around, and their calm pace sets a peaceful stage for a relaxed meal. Scoring the mood is a mix of swayable tunes from the Rat Pack, Motown, Michael Bublé and others.
The menu is influenced by Italian and Mediterranean culinary traditions. The star may be the orecchiette, which had been my favorite dish back when I originally knew the restaurant. I was surprised and glad to see it still available at both brunch and dinner. Ear-shaped pasta is topped with sausage, broccoli rabe, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan for a delightful contrast of spicy heat, mild creaminess, savory vegetal and sweet fruit flavors. The dish is at once simply comforting and interestingly complex. (In a later conversation with Kalmanson, she said it’s a popular favorite: “If I took the orecchiette or the lasagna off the menu, I’d have a problem on my hands.”)
The meatball appetizer nests a duo of meatballs into a crock of creamy soft polenta, all topped with tomato gravy and an artful smattering of pecorino and oregano. Extra cheese, herbs and dried peppers are scattered alongside. Each meatball is at least two bites in size, but it’s hard not to wish for more once the plate is clean. The cannellini bean bruschetta appetizer buries the large beans under a hefty spattering of tomato escabeche plus greens, mushrooms and herbed ricotta that masks the mild bean flavors. But that didn’t stop me from taking multiple bites. Chicken picatta packs an eye-pleasing trio of green, red and yellow. Skinny cappellini pasta swirls under tender chicken, roasted tomatoes and capers, all drenched in a sauce that adds a just-right snap of tart lemon bite to the dinner entrée.
At brunch, shrimp polenta gives shrimp and grits an Italian spin, and the result is exactly what you’d wish it to be: a blissful blend of sweet seafood and creamy cornmeal with pops of tomato, spice and bacon flavors. Eggs Benedict, another twist on a classic, swaps crusty Italian bread for the English muffin. Red pepper lends the hollandaise a smoky note, but mostly a pink hue. The potatoes served alongside were cooked to perfection; a bit more red pepper hollandaise would have been welcome for dipping. Desserts of semifreddo and torta divina satisfy cravings for sweets, but savory sides such as Brussels sprouts are consistently more impressive. Skip dessert unless your sweet tooth simply cannot be ignored.
Dining at Campagnolo is not the same experience for me as it once was since I don’t recognize anybody in the kitchen, but the food is familiar and satisfying, the atmosphere welcoming, the servers attentive and the ambiance relaxed yet jovial. I’m glad to be reacquainted.
CAMPAGNOLO RESTAURANT + BAR
980 Piedmont Ave., 30309
Recommended: Shrimp polenta ($14), meatball polenta ($10), orecchiette ($10, $18), chicken picatta ($18).
Bottom Line: Campagnolo Restaurant + Bar offers a relaxing atmosphere, attentive service and tasty fare at fair prices.
STORY: Hope S. Philbrick
PHOTOS: Erik Meadows