(Between writing time and publication time, this less-than-a-year-old restaurant closed and was replaced with a Sam’s Chowder House location.)
Names matter. Would you pay to be entertained by Georgios Panayiotou, Joyce Frankenberg or Terry Jean Bollette? Probably not, but you’ve likely heard of George Michael, Jane Seymour and Hulk Hogan, their stage names. In similar fashion, when Campo Pizzeria opened in downtown Palo Alto last December in the former Lavanda location, there were at least nine other pizza sources within a few blocks so the name didn’t resonate.
However, the fresh, tasty, upscale Italian cuisine definitely has appeal so this handsome eatery renamed itself this year to Campo 185 and hasn’t looked back. It inhabits a nice niche, serving much better food than the pedestrian local pizzerias without outrageous prices. Yes, Campo offers pizza — a very respectable, thin-crust version with creative toppings — but guests would do well to explore a small but solid selection of antipasti, salads, pasta, entrees and sides.
Campo’s initial name is a rare stumble for the Shenkman and Rossman restaurant group, which also runs Osteria Coppa in San Mateo and Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay along with some Sam’s food trucks. Not Italian but crazy about Italian food, founder Paul Shenkman launched his successful food career with Pasta Moon and later Cetrella, both on the coast. Given the divine food at Osteria Coppa as well as at the earlier outposts, it’s clear that this team has a way with Italian cuisine and Campo is in the same mold.
Setting Campo apart is a mozzarella bar in which freshly pulled cheese — it tastes like it just left the cow — is paired with various ingredients such as corn salsa, luscious tomato jam, roast veggies, herbs and assertive olive oil with plenty of bread for wiping up every morsel.
There are so many divine antipasti that it’s tempting to make a meal of them. The fritto misto here is perfect, with airy, fried-crisp batter encasing little gourmet peppers (padróns and shishitos) along with petite green tomatoes and a lush lemon verbena aioli on the side. Grilled octopus is meaty but tender, amped up by Cerignola olives, Yukon potatoes, preserved lemon and a spicy hit of Calabrian chiles. Then there’s white corn and saffron arancini — little fried balls — that are comforting yet exotic, served with more of that incredible tomato jam and pickled summer squash.
Rather than the ubiquitous caesar salad, Campo offers a nimble combo of wild arugula, chunks of pluots, toasted walnuts and snowy ricotta salata cheese in a just-right balsamic vinaigrette. Equally brilliant is a salad with fresh pole beans, super-sweet cherry tomatoes, cucumber, basil, rosemary almonds and provolone.
A quartet of solid pasta dishes includes baked rigatoni in which layers of eggplant, tomato, Gaeta olives and basil are wrapped in cheeses, producing a lusty, hearty, quintessentially Italian treat. Other pasta offerings include one featuring seafood and another with a rich pork ragu.
Two giant pizza ovens in the back still testify to Campo’s focus on the pie and there are eight versions on the menu that can be ordered with gluten-free crust if you must, as well as extra toppings of anchovies, arugula, Calabrian chiles or a farm egg, which is supposed to arrive with a runny yolk. As with most hand-made, Italian-style pizza, the goal here is a pie whose crisp crust still has some tooth to it while there isn’t a glut of the fine topping ingredients. This isn’t Pizza Hut, after all, and it’s nice to avoid lectures from your cardiologist. Toppers here include mushrooms, pork sausage, squash, fresh figs, meatballs, truffle oil, herbs and many kinds of cheese.
Entrees hit the majors — one each fish, poultry, steak and lamb offering — fortifying each correctly cooked protein with creative, fresh accompaniments. Grilled local salmon is masterful, cocooned in grape leaves and sitting astride lush eggplant puree with grilled baby squash and a tiny tomato salad. Even the veggie-focused side dishes are excellent.
Portions aren’t overwhelming, a positive thing for those wise enough to dive into dessert. House-made sorbets are becoming legendary, such as a phenomenal pluot-yuzu sorbet with intense flavors. Or try the chocolate bomba, a decadent concoction featuring dense, moist cake, a ball of malt-flavored crema and crushed amaretti cookies sprinkled across both. Then there’s a superlative goat-cheese panna cotta topped by fresh strawberries with a subtle touch of lemon verbena.
Not a lot has changed, looks wise, from the Lavanda days, with a bar in front, somewhat scuffed wood floors, Tuscan colors and windows around both sides. The Lavanda owners did a huge overhaul from the era when this spot was Good Earth but their tasteful approach lends itself to yet another modern Italian eatery. Besides the new pizza ovens, one welcome upgrade is adding a few tables in front to assist in University Avenue’s transformation into sidewalk-dining central.
A “field-to-farm” restaurant like Campo (the name means “field” in Italian) will keep switching around its menu based on the seasons but the overall focus is on creative, impeccably fresh offerings that celebrate regional Italian cuisine. The reborn Campo 185 aims to please a broad audience and on a recent evening, the modern, Tuscan-style restaurant had a little of everything, from families and 20-somethings in grimy t-shirts and shorts to happily grinning boomer couples diving into the delicious grub.
Sure, there are loads of places to eat Italian in downtown Palo Alto but Campo meets the challenge and raises it a bit when it comes to tasty cuisine.
Campo 185, 185 University Ave., Palo Alto; (650) 614-1177; http://www.campopizzeria.com
HOURS: Lunch, Wednesday-Saturday, 11:30-2:30. Dinner nightly, 5-10. Sunday brunch. 10:30-2:30. Reservations suggested.
PRICES: Starters: $6-13; pasta: $15-16; pizzas: $13-17; entrees: $20-25; desserts: $4-8.