A new restaurant in a small city is almost always going to generate buzz. But the real challenge for a restaurateur comes after the initial enthusiasm dies down. Is that early excitement from the dining community just a short-term crush? Or will it develop into a long-term relationship?
Campobello's Bistro has served high-end Italian food out of its Midtown strip-mall location since 1995. When my husband and I first moved to Anchorage a few years after that, it was in our regular date-night rotation. It was more sophisticated than the typical red-sauce spaghetti joint (don't get me wrong; I love a good red-sauce spaghetti joint) and had a romantic, quiet feel.
However, Campobello has been off my dining radar for some years. A chance U-turn in its parking lot reminded me of its presence and made me wonder how the restaurant has held up.
I met a friend for a mid-week lunch. The room hasn't changed much over the years, but it's pleasant, with spacious booths, some well-chosen artwork and a serene, hushed atmosphere. When you enter, you mentally leave the strip mall behind. We were greeted quickly and seated by a server who then presided over our meal.
The lunch menu is appealing, with salads and sandwiches, a few meat and seafood dishes and a range of pastas. We opted to split a Mediterranean salad ($13) as a starter. I chose the chicken Saltimbocca sandwich ($12.75) and my companion chose the Pasta Putanesca ($13.75).
I appreciated the fact that our "split" salad came on two plates -- a classy detail that prevented us from fighting over the last wedge of tomato. The salad was fine but somehow unexciting, and there was little evidence of the promised pepperoncini that would have added tang to the dish. All of the produce was crisp, fresh and ripe but I found that the large chunks did little to enhance the flavors. I would have preferred a finer dice on the tomatoes and red onion to naturally "dress" the lettuce and make it easier to eat. And there was very little of the fresh mozzarella to add creaminess and substance to the dish. Missing from the plate was the grilled bread mentioned on the menu so the salad seemed more like a side dish than an entrée (though the addition of grilled chicken available for an additional $2 could have helped).
My sandwich was, frankly, a disappointment. All of the components tasted perfectly fine but it seemed like something I could have gotten at any decent lunch spot for a few dollars less. The chicken was juicy and flavorful, but the prosciutto was not the paper-thin jacket that I had hoped for. Rather, it was coarsely chopped and didn't make it into every mouthful. The mozzarella was parsimoniously applied and I didn't notice the sun-dried tomatoes at all. Next to the sandwich was a small, dry salad, and it wasn't until after the meal that I realized it was supposed to come with French fries, which would have gone a long way to making the meal feel like a better value (a cup of soup would be a nice offering as well). To be fair, I didn't give them a chance to correct the omission but it seems like an obvious thing to leave off the plate.
My friend's pasta was, by contrast, a very generous serving and beautifully presented. At first taste, it was blander than expected -- it lacked the salty brininess that capers naturally impart. However, a judicious application of salt and fresh-ground pepper perked it up considerably and he noticed, too, that as he got further into the dish, the flavors deepened, as if the pasta had just needed time to "steep," as it were.
We split a dessert at my friend's suggestion -- lemon-zest ice-cream ($5.75) is a mainstay on the menu that he highly recommended. While I generally shy away from sweets, I was glad to break my rule. The ice cream was tart and palate-cleansing with a creamy finish -- a revelation and pleasantly light ending to a large lunch.
Service was polite and polished but a bit slow. The servers felt mysteriously over-taxed though the room didn't seem overly-busy. At one point, our server left our table in mid-order to answer a ringing phone. We weren't in a particular rush, but the room seemed generally understaffed.
I returned for dinner later in the week with my daughter and a friend. Again, the room was quiet, but the staff seemed strangely frenzied. Our server let us know it would be a few minutes before she could get to us, which was helpful, but it would have been nice to get some drinks while we waited. However, once service commenced, it was generally attentive and timely.
To start, we opted for grilled prosciutto shrimp ($12.50). Four plump shrimp arrived wrapped in smoky ham and sporting distinctive grill marks. The shrimp within were salty and juicy. They were gone in a flash with some jostling for the last one (we cut it into thirds).
My daughters ordered the ravioli marinara ($19). The firm, slightly chewy pasta was the perfect contrast to the rich ricotta and gooey mozzarella within (along with two other cheeses, though I couldn't say what they were). The marinara sauce tasted fresh -- not the highly-reduced, tomato-paste heavy sauce that you might expect. It was heavy on the olive oil, which lent it a clean, subtly grassy flavor I love.
My friend's chicken fettucini ($19), was a generous portion and, while not particularly remarkable, satisfied her craving for cream.
The best dish of the night, however, was my filet mignon hunter ($35). As soon as I ordered it, I had buyer's remorse. I figured that I hadn't ordered to the restaurant's strengths, but I was craving red meat and hoped for the best. The steak was a high quality cut, incredibly tender and perfectly seasoned and cooked (I ordered it medium rare and it was exactly right). A velvety, savory, mushroom-rich hunter sauce added depth to the mildness of the meat. A wedge of potato gratin and a few steamed vegetables made this a straightforward but very satisfying entrée.
To end, there was nothing for it but to order the lemon zest ice-cream again. Now, I want to buy it by the gallon.
Campobello hit some low notes over the course of two meals -- some omissions in the kitchen, and a few staffing problems, but it also hit some high ones. Fresh, high-quality ingredients, perfectly executed filet mignon, pleasing pastas and a killer dessert were enough to put them back on my dining radar. After all, they've maintained their place in Anchorage's competitive restaurant world for almost 20 years. They must be doing something right.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent