Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Unrestaurant

   I've been wanting to post something about La Campagna in Westlake ever since I had my birthday dinner there in February. Timely events and other pressing subjects kept grabbing the space but at last I can devote this soapbox of mine to doling out some well deserved praise for this absolutely unique and quirky destination.
  I must warn you however, that to enjoy a meal here you must let go of almost all your expectations of what a restaurant is supposed to be. By day it is a small gourmet food and wine shop. Gift baskets are a specialty. At night the tables and chairs come out with seating for around 30-35, and it can be close quarters. But that's part of the experience. Instead of scanning a list, diners browse the selection of bottles on the shelves, pick what they want and pay retail for it. Due to licensing issues, staff controls the bottles and the pours, doling it out in small amounts, all the better in my opinion for sipping, savoring and keeping the pace leisurely.
   Carmella Fragassi is the queen of the kitchen here. A devotee of the cuisine of Puglia, the region of Italy where her family hails from, she makes everything from scratch and uses as much local and seasonal product as she can, just as they do in the old country trattorias that are her model. Her cooking is wonderful, far better than what we think of as homemade but not restaurant fussy or chef fancy. It is traditional not rule- breaking or mind bending. Everything I've ever had here has been truly done well and totally satisfying. 

   There is no menu. A server, who might be her sister, recites the list of what Carmella is cooking that day. There's always some kind of appetizer, which could include prosciutto made by her brother,  salad, pasta, maybe soup, usually a fish, poultry, and a red meat dish. If you ate something you loved on a previous visit, you can call ahead and request it and she'll try to accommodate you. Ditto with special dietary requirements and favorite or hated ingredients.  In my opinion, the very best way to eat here is to cede control completely,  put yourself in Carmella's hands and let her create the meal for you.
   Keep in mind that the place isn't open late, usually not seating after 9 PM. Reservations are absolutely essential, (440-871-1771). And its damn hard to locate particularly after dark:  set back from Detroit Road in a strip mall fronted by a parking lot. Plus there's no big illuminated sign, not to mention that it looks like a store not a restaurant. But persevere- it's worth the effort.
   I  discovered La Campagna many years ago and consider it a local treasure. The night I was there a young woman came up to my table to tell me she'd been in the audience at one of my author talks when I sang its praises, had come with her husband out of curiosity the first time, and they were now regulars. Those who already know the spot think of it as their own secret find.  Everyone who has yet to discover its charms are in for a very pleasant surprise. And did I mention, Carmella caters?




3 comments:

lacey said...

I wanna try this myself!

Amanda Kleinhenz said...

La Campagna is by far the best Italian in NEO. They're like family to me - so much so that they hosted my rehearsal dinner before my wedding! So glad you had a good experience. If you haven't already, try the eggplant parmesan!

Anonymous said...

Laura,

Thank you so much for all of your continuing support and praise. My love of cooking come from days spent with my grandmothers and my grandfather who would take me to the Northern Ohio Food Terminal when I spent summer vacations. We would buy the food then we would take the bus and rapid back to the east side of Cleveland. When we got home Grandma and Grandpa would talk of the old country and the foods they missed and tried to re-create those dishes with the foods of the new world.

As the years pass I often think of those great memories and it makes me want to preserve what they shared with their family even more. I am so grateful to my customers who support me and appreciate what we do here at La Campagna. And most of all I appreciate you and your kind words.

Thanks again.

Carmella