July 11, 1994 | Vintage Insatiable
Campagna: Ciao Down
Oh, how quickly your golden boy can turn the tables on you. Just ask Pino Luongo about Campagna. In his autobiographical version of Genesis, “Fish Talking,” Luongo writes that it was he who plucked Mark Strausman, a hungry naïf from Queens, out of Il Cantinori’s kitchen and boosted him to fame at Sapore di Mare. “The only sardine he’d ever seen came in a can,” Pino recalls. “I told him to throw away everything he’d learned in European hotel kitchens, and I would turn him into a trattoria type of cook...I made him Italian by adoption.”
At Sapore, a Hamptons territorial imperative and later at Coco Pazzo, Luongo liked to call his chef “Marco Uomostrano” (“strange man”) and say he came from Florence Hill on the Siena Side of Queens. “I watched him turn into a big Italian mamma...he loves to be surrounded by food, drowning in food...it looks like he’s preparing for the end of the world.”
Actually, Strausman was prepping for freedom and a place he could run. “Pino thinks he owns you,” Strausman said. So now he’s planted Campagna in the space that housed Luze. Gone is the upscale motel glitz. There’s rough sisal on the floor, soft and flattering light, a subtle blur of cream and pale sage green, and enough wood to signal “rustic” - a warm setting for the chef’s robust Italianate food. From the sidewalk you can peer into the kitchen and catch Strausman in the act of committing pasta, both classic and inventive. Up front, a steel dentists’ cabinet hold precious olive oil. Luckily, the paintings are too innocuous to offend. Focus instead on the huge terra-cotta urn with flowers fanned like a peacock’s tail and the country dining table with today’s antipasto on fabulous pottery platters. Stashed in a bin is the catch of the day - tentacled and finny things on ice.
In no time at all, Coco Pazzo’s coddled darlings have dropped by, along with the usual nighthawks and avant-garde fashion freaks, not to mention the Flatiron business folk Strausman’s counting on to keep Campagna humming at lunch. Ex-mates with new companions wave to each other across the room. And I bet they’re loving the food, if not the tab ($50 to $75 per person at dinner, though the daily-changing $19.94 prix fixe lunch is a nice charity). The splendid Florentine steak, rare and slightly charred, sliced off the bone with deep-green spinach and happily decadent mashed potatoes on the side. The black risotto that looks like auto sludge but is so rich and delicious I must force myself to pass it on to my review-dinner companions. The “duet of lamb” - two grilled chops and luscious long-cooked shoulder (overcooked, the menu confesses) with small artichokes flattened and crisp-fried in the Jewish style. And beautiful seafood couscous Strausman discovered recently in Sicily, with delicate tendrils of skate, chunks of salmon and black bass, and a spicy afterglow. He’d been cooking Italian by osmosis, with Pino as his Svengali, till his 1989 honeymoon in Tuscany, where he was pleased to find tastes that reminded him of his own at Sapore.
From day one, a quartet of managers have been on patrol at Campagna, joined at times by Strausman himself, a smiling Humpty Dumpty meeting old chums. Few waiters anywhere would be as impressive as ours tonight - he’s good, clever, intuitive, just teetering on the edge of pretension, touting boutique olive oils. “It’s the newest hobby for Chianti winemakers,” he says. Sure, we can tag along to direct his antipasto pick, but why not just relax and trust him? And though we’ve asked for vegetables only, he can’t resist adding some mozzarella and a coverlet of prosciutto to the asparagus, alongside white beans, peas, mushrooms, mint-filled artichokes, beets, zucchini with savory tomato frosting, and crisp, chewy eggplant rounds.
For me, the old-fashioned eggplant parmigiana is fatally mushy, but I watch as a trio at lunch cheerfully divide it into three portions. The greaseless but bland fritto misto - shrimp, squid, and scallops with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms - desperately needs a squeeze of lemon. Roman gnocchi in a girdle of Fontina with tomato, arugula, and pesto is a bit of overkill. But tagliolini, tossed with potatoes, string beans, and pesto, is a triumph. It’s hard to imagine the “overcooked broccoflower” stewed to almost a puree could be such a grand foil for orecchiette. And here is the secret of the chef’s mashed potatoes: “I like Yukon Golds with butter, cream, Parmesan, and a little more butter and...butter.”
The whole fish, sea bass tonight (skinned and boned if you ask), puts me to sleep. And osso buco, stewed in red wine with the sweetness of carrots, seems dry. Not so the rich flavored grilled chicken with rosemary, garlic, and oven-roasted potatoes. (Pastas and entrées $10 to $18 at noontime, $14 to $28 at dinner.)
So far, lunch is quiet, but the word is getting around. Today, two of us are sharing the chef’s Madison Avenue salad: beets, asparagus, fava beans, mushrooms, fennel, peas and seven or eight lettuces with tuna and Parmesan shards. “Uptown, everyone wants their salad chopped, and I figure if you can’t beat them, join them,” says Strausman. “And tuna is the official protein of the Upper East Side.” The arugula salad with red onions, beets, and potatoes needs a livelier dressing, and the panzanella - a special - is far too soggy and in need of more bread. But the grilled-chicken-and-pancetta club sandwich is brilliantly layered with peppers, tomato, arugula, and pesto mayonnaise on focaccia, cut into quarters around a hill of spectacular white beans in pesto. And nutty skate on red, yellow, and green peppers zings with flavor, salty as it is. Flecks of hot red pepper add oomph to spaghetti with baby clams and small mussels in a puddle of broth. But you have to be wild about canned tuna to really love the scamorza-cheese tuna melt.
There are real Italian treasures on the wine list and impressive Californians, too, including a Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard,” tucked away for the next extravagant grape nut. Economizing, we are pleased with Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel at $19, and splurging a bit one evening, we love Close du Val’s ’89 Stag’s Leap Cabernet at $33.
Thought you’d outgrown Jell-O? Try wondrously refreshing white-wine jelly with grapes, raspberries, and bits of apple. Italian dessert tradition gets a kick - the lemon-ricotta semifreddo with blackberry compote has real substance, and there are al dente apples on buttery shortcake with cinnamon ice cream. Tiramisu fluff is reborn with hard edges as “bittersweet chocolate mascarpone cake” on magnificent chocolate espresso sauce...and about time. Now that the kitchen is settling, there will be after-dinner cookies for everyone, not just pets - little buttery nut-studded Xs, almond cookies, and biscotti. And I’d like to think that anyone who orders Nonino Grappa picolit - the $27 digestif - as we did, might also get a small tasting of grappas on labeled napkins as a gift. Dare one dream such indulgences will survive the madding scene that seems inevitable here?
As for those purists who scoff at an American with the nerve to cook Italian, Strausman won’t hear of it. He recalls the hours of passionate food talk with Pino on the Long Island Expressway to Sapore as provocative and exhilarating. Now, after more than a dozen trips to Italy, he’ll take his own bow. “If you don’t have an Italian in the kitchen, you don’t have the chaos, the opera - and that you don’t miss at all.”
24 East 21st Street. Now closed.