First Look: Campagnolo

Will it survive in Midtown's most cursed building?

Monday May 14, 2012 10:00 am EDT

I'm tired of yawning at restaurant meals I expect to like. I drag friends with me to new places to get a broad taste of the menu. If I'm disenchanted, I drag more friends back to try more food. It can get expensive, and guess what. There's rarely a change. Such restaurants may get better, even radically so, months down the road. And good ones may go bad. But mediocrity has a way of settling in unless the alarm is sounded.

So, I'm clanging the bell about my dinner and lunch at the new Campagnolo (980 Piedmont Ave., 404-343-2446, www.peasantatl.com). Don't get me wrong. There are some good dishes on chef Daniel Chance's menu, but you're not going to dance down the street singing, "That's Italian!" And your wallet may be sighing deeply.

Campagnolo is definitely fun. Owner Maureen Kalmanson is a charming host and has done a masterful job of remodeling a building that has housed one miserably short-lived restaurant after another. She co-owns the beautiful (and delicious) Peasant Bistro downtown — "campagnolo" means "peasant" — and has an obvious eye for good style.

Minimalism rules. Kalmanson has torn away the long-standing decrepit patio enclosure to reveal a sleek brick façade. The patio is now open to view, de rigueur in Midtown's see-and-be-seen scene. Unless you're looking to rub elbows, I definitely suggest that you try to score a table there because the main interior dining room, where the bar is also located, can be overwhelmingly noisy. But it is easy on the eyes, with gentle blacks and soft greens punctuated by dizzy-bright art. The overall space is rectangular, with the square main dining room leading down a short set of stairs to an elongated space lined with booths. You can almost whisper there.

Chef Chance's résumé includes stints at Pricci and Veni Vidi Vici early in his career that qualify him to prepare an Italian menu that appeals to Americans. More impressive, he has worked at Trois, Two Urban Licks, and Abattoir, which suggests he has plenty of talent to tweak Italian dishes in interesting ways. It's a simple fact that we can't reproduce fully "authentic" Italian food in this country. So, Babo-esque playful riffs, such as those of Bruce Logue, former chef of Pietra Cucina, usually are the best approach.

Of dishes I tasted at dinner, my favorite starter was ovals of crostini topped with chicken-liver mousse and a salad of shaved fennel, carrots, radishes, lemon filets, and shallots. None of these ingredients really stood up to the chicken livers, except texturally. You can pluck them off the crostini and get a better taste, if you like.

Friends tried and shared the arugula, mixed, and Caesar salads. Pick the arugula. It included candied pine nuts that played against the natural pepperiness of the arugula, which was in turn intensified with a vinaigrette of black pepper and lemon. The Caesar salad was as salty as it should be, meaning it included anchovies in the dressing. But the romaine was limp. Order the mixed salad — perfectly unthreatening — for your mama.

Pastas are available as smaller-portion primi or fuller, enormous portions that make one of the seven secondi unthinkable. Actually, the primi are huge, too. We stuck mainly to these as our entrées — a mistake, because they are not the kitchen's strong suit. My favorite was the fettuccine with house-cured lonzino bacon, egg, zucchini, and Parmesan. We added chicken livers cooked with Marsala. It's a soothing plate of contrasts from al dente to creamy, from tangy to musty.

I ordered orecchiete on our server's recommendation. I wasn't fond of it, but probably for a reason others will like it. It was loaded with sausage. I mean loaded. As a consequence, the flavor of the small amount of traditional broccoli rabe was all but eclipsed. And the dish needed at least twice the three cherry tomatoes, whose acidic, sweet bite was absolutely essential to tempering the heavy sausage.

Cappellini was drenched with shirt-dribbling pomodoro sauce with Parmesan cheese and basil. Maybe it's purely personal taste, but I want my angel hair sparingly sauced, especially as a first course. The menu allows you to add meatballs, which I cannot imagine.

Risotto was oddly dry — not creamy — and was tossed with more of the rabe, arugula, pine nuts, pecorino, and "scallion butter." Despite the texture, I kind of liked it. My friend, however, all but banged his fork on the table, crying for creamy.

I've sampled only two secondi. Take note: Both blew the pastas away. First was half a roasted game hen with crispy skin and faint oiliness zapped by lemon. Second was lamb shoulder tinged with Marsala wine, served with wild mushrooms and garlic mashed potatoes. The latter small sample was filched from the plate of someone I barely know as I walked by his table, so my impression was fleeting.

Sides, whether accompanying an entrée or ordered extra, vary considerably. Roasted Brussels sprouts were nicely charred. Polenta, mixed with sun-dried-tomato-and-bacon pesto, was creamier than grits and I watched my friend scoop it from a bowl with bread at dinner. At lunch, the polenta showed up pooled on a plate, stiffer and colder than Tiny Tim's porridge. Nicely grilled shrimp stood in a line in the polenta, but they deserved much better. And so did I for $14.

Other dishes at lunch disappointed, too. What meat-eater wouldn't want to try a double-patty burger with mortadella, pepperoni, provolone, and pickled onion? Alas, the meats were cooked to saliva-draining, taste bud-wrecking dryness. A friend who eschews gluten ordered a breadless meatball sub with pomodoro and mozzarella. The meatballs were barely sauced and were drier than the burger. Hello?

Desserts? The espresso bread pudding was masterful but the panna cotta in a blood-orange coulis was disconcertingly rubbery.

I want this restaurant to succeed. I really, really do. I love the space, it's a great scene, the service is A-plus. But the food needs considerable improvement, most especially at lunch.

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