Oh, I forgot how wonderful it is to visit a new restaurant. To sit down at the bar and really drink the place in. To try a smattering of dishes to truly get a sense of the chef’s headspace. To actually feel the vibe, not just observe it from the takeout counter before rushing home.
I rediscovered this pleasure this week at a media happy hour at the week-old Campo Italian Bistro and Bar, the newest incarnation of James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Stratta’s space in The Village at Hayden in Scottsdale. Previously, it was Stratta Kitchen, an upscale counter service spot specializing in healthy mix-and-match dishes inspired by global flavors. It didn’t quite take off as hoped, so Stratta did a little reconceiving and came out with a rustic yet refined Italian eatery.
In the process, he partnered with Genuine Concepts, the hospitality group behind such neighborhood hot spots as The Vig, Ladera Taverna y Cocina, The Little Woody, The Womack, et al. In them, he has an ally with a proven track record in establishing local haunts with cult followings and staying power – plus a chef pal/partner in Jeremy Pacheco, whom the organization hired last year as its executive chef/culinary director. But we’ll get to the food later. The scene deserves a little more love.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
According to my happy hour companion Cesar Cramton, the Genuine Concepts operations manager I had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year for a travel column, designer Trina Boyd (wife of Genuine co-founder/owner Tucker Woodbury) is responsible for this transportive haven. Shades of muted green – olive, moss, fern and sea – and plenty of plants create a calm, warm, welcoming environment. Neutrals like cream, sand, caramel and amber provide swathes of serenity. Organic textures like wood, stone, clay and woven textiles are grounding and soothing. It’s at once vacation-y and homey, a little glam but thoroughly approachable. There’s a large wrap-around bar for lingering, niches for lounging and a “dining room” artfully separated by wooden-slat room dividers. A pretty patio includes full shade, a misting fan, earthy globe lanterns and roll-down shade screens. I know a little bit about patio dining, and I predict this will become one of the Valley’s most sought-after al fresco dining destinations.
When happy hour is your beat, you get your fill of fried, sauced, oversized, greased-up classics. They have their time and place, but sometimes you want to go a little lighter. Campo is the perfect place to graze.
Bar snacks (regularly $4-$6, discounted to a double-take-inducing $3 during happy hour) feel very Euro. Warm marinated olives immediately put you in an Italian frame of mind. Ditto the stracchino cheese, a mild, stretchy, creamy cousin of burrata topped with parsley, Queen Creek Olive Mill olive oil and vibrant pink peppercorns. Scoop up tender pulls of cheese with crisp, sesame-flecked lavosh crackers and indulge your la dolce vita fantasies.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
Radishes with butter and salt are a classic French nosh. Stratta gives them the Italian treatment by pairing them with grissini – long, thin, sesame-covered breadstick wands. Flakes of Maldon salt and more of those punchy pink peppercorns bring it all together. In Italian-American restaurants, giardiniera is usually a stewy relish of spicy, pickled vegetables. At Campo, it looks more like a composed salad – slender asparagus spears layered with julienned carrots and peppers and cauliflower florets stained faintly pink by its pals in the brine. The crunch and tang of the giardiniera are the perfect foils for the creaminess of the stracchino.
Caponata also packs an acidic punch thanks to stewed tomatoes, orange marmalade and capers. I think I must have eaten some bad caponatas elsewhere, because my experience with the Sicilian dish has usually been disappointing puddles of eggplant sludge. Here, roasted eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, red onions and garlic are finely diced and mixed with green olives, black currants and toasted pine nuts for a delightful mix of textures and flavors – salty, sweet, earthy, briny, roasty. I’m a caponata convert.
No conversion was needed for one of my favorite snacks, Marcona almonds – I usually always have some in the fridge at home. Here, they’re paired simply with fine bits of fresh parsley, Maldon salt and smoky Aleppo chile. I could eat the whole bowl by myself. The same is true of the plate of grilled Noble Bread, kissed with olive oil and sided with pesto. Noble owner/baking wizard Jason Raducha also helped the Campo crew dial in their pizza dough, which is used in savory pies as well as in the panini. It’s stretchy, chewy and crisp, with a deeper flavor than its humble ingredients of flour, salt and yeast would suggest. Try it during happy hour with the pizza and bottle of wine special ($25). The margherita has generous dots of mozz, roasted tomatoes and shreds of basil. Simple and sublime. But I couldn’t resist the cheesy lure of the quattro formaggio – mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and Parmigiano on that glorious crust. Cramton sprinkled some of the restaurant’s house-made pizza salt on it for a little chile kick.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
Even though the restaurant is only a week or so into service, “happy hour has been nuts,” general manager Blake Farbman says. “The whipped eggplant is becoming what we’re known for.” The dip of roasted eggplant and ricotta ($10) sounds divine, but I was simply too stuffed to consider another morsel. I’ll order it next time – along with cacio e pepe made with fresh spaghetti from Sonoran Pasta Co. Farbman and Cramton say the simple dish of pasta, pecorino and cracked black pepper has been a surprising early hit.
So many happy hours cater to beer drinkers – yay for them, but not so much for me, a wine and cocktails gal. Campo has my number with generous wine specials ($5 for a glass of house red, white or rosé, plus that excellent pizza and wine special), two types of superb sangria ($6 each) and fun cocktails. (Beer is still discounted, though – $5 bottles of domestic and imported.)
“I have to order the limoncello margarita,” I told Cesar as soon as I sat down at the bar. Where else can you get one? It’s so light and lovely, bursting with real Meyer lemon flavor from house-made limoncello – from Stratta’s grandma, Nano’s, recipe ($6). Another summery highlight is the peach-rosemary martini ($14), a velvety sipper made with Grey Goose Essences Peach Rosemary, peach purée, lemon juice and simple syrup and topped with a rosemary sprig. Our lovely bartender, Tiffani, says these two are her favorites as well.
Photo by Leah LeMoine
The Empress Whim ($13) is floral and slightly tart, with Empress gin, grapefruit liqueur, lemon juice and simple syrup in a pretty purple potion that is indeed fit for royalty. Next time I’ll try the Italian Crush (vodka, Ramazzotti rosato, orange juice and grapefruit soda, $12), which Farbman says has already been popular with patrons. I can definitely see myself becoming a regular. It’s so exciting when you get that vibe from a new place.
Happy hour runs Tuesday-Friday from 3-6 p.m.