Campania Trattoria & Café
Remember when Italian food was still fun?
by Robert Nadeau
Remember how much fun Italian food used to be, before the experts came in and
ruined it? Campania revives that fun. The name is from the Southern Italian
region that includes Naples and Avellino, and the restaurant touts Neapolitan
food. But no regional purists have been allowed to purge the menu of a risotto
here or a French dessert there, and the Neapolitan specialties of ice cream,
pizza, macaroni, and mozzarella cheese are not overplayed. There's a story here
(passed to me by my winemaking mentor, Dr. Rob Friedman of Newton) about
immigrant parents and a modest family café developing a devoted
following; a son returning from culinary school with big ideas; a few of the
old family recipes hesitantly offered and warmly received.
(781) 894-4280 |
504 Main Street, Waltham
Open Mon-Wed, 5-10 p.m.;
and Thurs-Sat, 5-11 p.m. Closed Sun.
Beer and wine
AE, DC, Di, MC, Visa
Up two steps from sidewalk level
Campania is a jumble of surfaces and stuff: polished copper tabletops, wood
menus, stucco and brick and Mexican-tiled walls, wine bottles and baskets of
peppers and onions, good things in bottles and jars, herbs hanging from the tin
ceiling, paintings evoking a terrace someplace. The food is expensive and
plentiful, and you get carried away and eat a lot of it, starting with a
thick-crumbed Tuscan white bread, and a crusty bread with a lot of holes in
much the style of bread baked in Pompeii (which is in Campania) 2000 years ago.
Now and then you might dip these breads into garlicky herbed olive oil.
The antipasto is a tempting way to resolve appetizer questions. You can have a
small plate of it, intended for two people, for $9, or the four-person large
plate for $18. Servers select the antipasti from a vast buffet of delicacies --
our night the big plate was laden with stuffed eggplant, sliced grilled
eggplant topped like a pizza, sliced artichokes, olives, cheeses, fried fish,
beans, grilled red peppers, and more.
A grilled seafood platter ($16) is another multiperson appetizer. All the
seafood was quite ash-flavored, perhaps from the wood-fired grill, but not
overcooked -- not even the
squid. The scallops were done to a gentle turn, the shrimps had good grill
flavor, and the hit of the platter was four oysters, fresh-tasting under the
smoke. The mussels were small but choice, and the underlying salad of field
greens vanished in a hurry. Fritto misto ($12) was a big plate of greens with
four small fried smelts and a few shrimp. It also is good for sharing, though
the real Italian idea of fritto misto is a lot of even smaller fish.
There are plenty of individual appetizers at Campania, though they don't seem
as much in the spirit of the place. We did get a big, flat bowl of white-bean
soup ($7) that had a lot of pepper and perhaps too much salt, and was somewhat
overwhelmed by a giant grilled crouton.
Specials ran to seafood, with stuffed sole ($24) and roast sea bass ($23). The
latter was likely a farmed striped bass, but it had a delicate flavor enhanced
by plenty of oregano. The former had one of those chef's whimsies of a stuffing
with seafood, portobello mushrooms, and spinach, but it was fresh and the dish
was fun to eat.
The seafood on the regular menu is very good, too. The surprise of the
entrées was a "risotto" en cartoccio ($22). This had real, short-grained
risotto rice in a pilaf rather than a creamy, soupy risotto, and was baked,
with the seafood, in a paper container. The seafood -- squid, shrimp, and
scallops -- emerged delicate and full of flavor. A dish of spaghettini with
seafood ($11 half-order/$20 full) had many of the same items (littlenecks, too)
and was topped by a bit of grilled lobster, overlaying a nicely done serving of
spaghetti in oil and garlic.
For homemade pasta goodness, it would be hard to beat the pappardelle
($10/$18), broad ribbons of fresh pasta with plenty of wild mushrooms to
amplify the flavor and extend the texture. Really hungry? Add some large shrimp
($23). Gnocchi ($8/$16) here are the smaller, hollowed cavatelli shape, all the
better to complement a first-class Neapolitan tomato sauce.
And, if you want red meat, the assiete de carne ($24) was a no-nonsense mixed
grill of duck and lamb. I ordered both medium, and that's how the four slices
of duck breast arrived, but the lamb was a kind of double loin steak tied
together across the backbone, and the chef cooked it rare. After tasting it,
though, I had no argument. Although the grilled meats had a vaguely Tuscan air
to them, the whole platter represented international haute cuisine, with slices
of glazed pear, a tangle of fried potato strings, and stalks of sautéed
broccolini. (Broccolini is a new hybrid that looks like skinny broccoli. Its
flavor isn't much different from broccoli, but in appearance it's as cute as
The wine list is all-Italian, as you might expect, and it does include a page
of high-quality wines from Campania. Boston wine snobs know about the
superlative wines of Mastroberardino, from Avellino, but there is now a serious
competitor, judging by our bottle of '97 Greco di Tufo by Terra Dora di Paolo
($7.50 glass, $30 bottle). This is a crisp, fruity white no Californian would
spurn, and a worthy rival for Mastroberardino's more traditional, heavier Greco
di Tufo, which is also on the list here.
The restaurant's real departure from old-time red-sauce tradition is its
long list of fabulous desserts. This is very much in the Neapolitan tradition
-- it's a comic-opera town, after all -- but the style here is French via
culinary school. Our night there was a chocolate soufflé you had to
order ahead ($9), and we were glad we did -- it was impeccably rich and light,
with accompanying vanilla ice cream. More-serious chocolate was the truffle
flan ($8), a flat little pie of pure candy with mocha ice cream and a
syrup-coated wafer sail. Now you can have Italian food with real taste, and
your vertical dessert, too! Banana mousse ($8) was even more vertical, two thin
wafers of fried banana like frills of ribbon in a breeze, though the mousse
itself was more creamy than banana-flavored.
Fruit desserts were represented by a luscious caramel pear crostata ($8) and
an apple-phyllo basket that also had lots of raisins in the filling. Tiramisu
($8) was layered in a large parfait glass, with more whipped cream than
anything else. Pumpkin cheesecake ($7) -- yes! I don't remember when I've had a
such a flight of desserts, topped off with excellent cappuccino and a hazelnut
One's check will build up in a place like this, and a few people will ask
whether the dishes really have that $40-a-person, epochal quality. In terms of
originality and classic perfection, no, they don't. But in terms of savor and
fun and mouth-filling flavors, surely they do, which is exactly how Italian
food lapped French cuisine in restaurants 15 years ago, before the "experts"
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.