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A dinner at Campania, in Waltham (more foodie than hound, but oh well)

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A dinner at Campania, in Waltham (more foodie than hound, but oh well)

Jeff Grossman/NYC | Oct 24, 2002 04:45 AM

Campania
504 Main Street
Waltham, MA
781-894-4280

An utterly charming room: walls made of stucco, brick, and tile, all curled together; the ceiling is covered in darkly-stamped tin, from which ladders are suspended, from which dried flowers and herbs are suspended; alabaster sconces, mirrors, and shelves of Italian cookbooks intermingle with the paintings of vegetables and fruit dotting the walls; I sat next to several long skinny baskets of red McIntosh apples and a large hand-painted yellow urn full of pink roses and purple snapdragons.

Italian soft-pop is piped in (it's no better than ours).

The tables varied from rustic four-square wooden objects that look like they've been around for 50 years to simple black wrought-iron-based square-tops.

Fresh flatware was brought on an as-needed basis: if I kept my knife and fork, they let me do so; if I left them on the plate, they brought me another set.

The menu was neither too long nor too short, maybe 8 choices each of appetizer, primo, secondo, and dessert. The wine list offered a half-dozen wines by the glass of each of red and white, only three half-bottles, and many many full bottles -- all Italian wine.

As appetizer, I chose a fascinating salad: Several slices of prosciutto, draped into a ring in the center of the plate, heaped up with arugula dressed with oil and a hint of lemon, topped with shaved parmesan; abutting the mound were four fig halves, topped with a bit of gorgonzola and briefly grilled; around the entire mound was a drizzle of thyme-scented honey dotted with praline pecans and pink peppercorns. The interplay of flavors was ecstatic -- best of all was the honey and pink peppercorns, as the piquant taste struggled to pierce the unctuous, viscous syrup; but other pairings were interesting, too: the rich cheeses with the fatty portions of the prosciutto, the figs and the honey, the crunch of the candied pecans, the zing of the peppercorns with the meaty flavor of the prosciutto. Someone gets a gold star for this one!

As primo, I chose an earthy dish: Gnocchi with truffle oil, mixed mushrooms, escarole, basil, and ricotta salata. This was served on the hottest dish I have ever had put in front of me, but that just gave me more time to inhale the heavenly truffle fumes billowing out of the bowl. The gnocchi were quite tender -- a pleasant thing -- and the slightly mushy mushrooms were a mix of chanterelle, oyster, and shiitake -- like it matters when there's truffle oil present. The two greens were an interesting contrast with each other and with the rich pasta, one of them tending towards anise and the other tending towards mint. I cannot explain what the ricotta salata does for the dish, it seemed merely dry and offered only a little flavor. Still, a very good dish for the potatoes-and-mushroom crowd.

With both of these dishes, I sipped a glass of Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Alba. It was fruity, not very tannic nor very rich, and was adequate. Perhaps something more strongly flavored -- Primitivo or Chianti -- would have been a better choice?

As secondo, I chose another many-flavored dish: Three roasted duck legs confit, sitting atop a pile of bitter greens, sitting atop a pear and carrot risotto, surrounded with cooked cherries and picholine olives, dashed with basil oil and festooned with frizzled chives. This very complicated dish had both good parts and bad parts. The bad: neither the basil oil nor the chunks of pear were strong enough to stand forward from the surrounding food, and the risotto texture, while not gluey, was not perfect. The good: whoever paired cherries and olives is a genius, and they combined well with the rich duck flesh and the crunchy bitter greens. A second gold star should be awarded!

With this dish, I ordered a glass of Ciacci Piccolomini Ateo which alternately showed its Sangiovese suavity or its Cabernet strength depending upon the food preceding it; a subtle wine for a complex dish.

Due to time pressure, blood pressure, and a sense of satiety (more about that in a moment), I declined dessert, though I'm sure it would have been grand, and only had espresso. Good crema.

Price-wise, Campania is expensive by Waltham standards and "the usual" by NYC standards (which means, I suppose, over-priced but not offensively so): the salad seemed dear at $13, the primo and secondo a more-or-less expected $15 and $23, the wines were reasonable ($7 for the Barbera) and pricey ($12 for the Ateo).

I left Campania feeling a sense of satiety, but, more importantly, a sense of balance and repose: I was not fed too much or too little, every ingredient was impeccable, every dish was either an intellectual exploration or a solidly comfortable respite, the ambiance gave me shelter from my day and "space" for contemplation.

I realize only now that I failed to get my server's name (the receipt says "Angelo K", if you see a lithe older man with a substantial moustache and an Italian accent, that is he), but he seemed to have some connection to the management of the restaurant: during the meal we talked about the food, after the meal we talked about the restaurant business (what 9/11 has done to it), and what sort of a world we live in now.

And, I pointed him towards www.chowhound.com, from which I gleaned the recommendation for Campania in the first place.

Thanks to all the kind folks here who have discussed Waltham dining before me.

Jeff

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