The Din Crowd
It's a good thing that it's the nose and not the ears that are connected to your sense of taste -- otherwise, you'd be unable to discern a single flavor at Campo de Fiori.
The buzz started even before the restaurant opened three months ago. Elizabeth and Luigi Giordani founded their first Campo de Fiori in Aspen in 1994 and a second in Vail in 1997; this past winter, they took on a below-street-level, revolving-door space in Cherry Creek that's been a half-dozen restaurants in the past decade alone. "Luigi and I had always wanted to open a restaurant together," says Elizabeth. "He was a chef cooking for high-pressure places in California, and that's where we met. I was doing a totally different career, and we wanted to do something less serious. So we decided to check out Aspen, thought we'd wait tables there for a few years, save some money and then move to Italy. But we just fell in love with the place, and when we had our money saved, we decided to go for it."
The original restaurant has been wildly popular ever since -- so much so that the Giordanis soon expanded their tiny space -- and the Vail version took off quickly, too. And so in-the-know diners eagerly awaited Campo's Denver debut: The Giordanis are renowned for serving laid-back Italian fare that doesn't take itself too seriously, in a seriously social setting. Luigi, a transplant from Italy, created many of the recipes as the first chef at the Aspen Campo; since then, they've been revised by executive chef (and Abruzzi native) Berto Paglia, with a little help from Elizabeth and the many Italian chefs and servers who've worked for the Giordanis over the past seven years.
The head chef at the Denver Campo -- Paglia divides his time between all three -- is fresh-from-Milan Massimo Ruffinazi, who checks the dining room almost as often as the Giordanis do. (Luigi and Elizabeth have moved to Denver from Aspen; Elizabeth says they'll probably wind up splitting their time between the two towns.) What Ruffinazi sees depends on the size of the crowd. When there aren't too many diners, the room is a charming -- albeit a tad table-cramped -- spot for a relaxed meal, and when it's full, it's a hustling, bustling see-and-be-seen scene that can be dizzying for the uninitiated.
How noisy is it? At one point, we pulled out pens and started writing notes to each other on scrap paper; we were simply tired of leaning across the table and talking at the top of our voices. On another visit, we were stuck in the front with a large group, and while the din was just shy of deafening, it was simply exhausting to have all that sound roaring around our heads. The servers are so used to yelling at night in order to be heard that when we returned for a relatively quiet midday meal, we found that they couldn't stop yelling, like people who walk out of a concert into a peaceful night unaware that they're still shouting.
At least many of them were shouting with Italian accents, which added to Campo's quirky charm. The earthy walls are painted with windblown sunflowers, and the cheery room is decorated with Italian pottery and cookware-cum-decor-items that look like they're straight from Tuscany. The restaurant is named after a Roman flower market (the words campo de fiori translate as "field of flowers"), and the setting captures both the feel and the freshness of the marketplace. That freshness is echoed in the food: The recipes have been tweaked just enough that Campo's dishes aren't so much autentico as they are fun contemporary takes on Italian favorites. And while production goofs kept some of those dishes from realizing their potential, the ingredient combinations showed that the kitchen usually has its palate in the right place.
The tagliata di manzo, for example, was a balanced-diet delight of a dish, with top-notch components and no distractions. A mound of fluffy whipped potatoes had been topped by a slightly wilted drift of oil-slicked arugula and thin pieces of rib-eye (which could have been thinner; order the meat no more than medium rare in order to keep it juicy outside and in), then strewn with big, thick tiles of parmesan. The penne alla Caprese was another simple pleasure: a plate of al dente pasta layered with just-melted mozzarella, fresh basil and bits of eggplant. Although the dish could have used more cheese -- we counted just three dime-sized blobs -- the glue holding it together, a cooked-down goo of a tomato sauce, more than compensated for that slight lack of richness.
Some of the dishes were even simpler. The Autunnale (Italian for "autumn") lived up to its name by delivering a cornucopia of fresh comfort foods: portobellos, butternut squash, grilled artichoke hearts and parmesan, touched off by a sweet balsamic vinaigrette tinged with truffle oil. (Although I didn't understand the menu's reference to a "filet" of squash, I'd take a steak of this stuff anytime.) The vongole al vapore brought a bowl of tender Manila clams swimming in an austere but deep-sea-flavored broth of white wine kissed by the clams' juices. A light touch with truffle oil kept the risotto al porcini from being all about mushrooms; the oil heightened the heady flavor of the porcinis without overpowering the creamy rice. And the gnocchi di melanzane, dumplings made with eggplant and potatoes, came awash in a marinara sauce so tomato-pungent it was like a freshly made paste, with baubles of goat cheese serving as a less filling but richer alternative to the gnocchi.
Not every dish worked as well. The bland, dull, lackluster, too-thick (did I say bland?) slices of Ahi tuna and silly little rounds of asparagus stalk (wasn't there a better way to disguise the fact that the spears had been used for something else?) made for a caricature of a carpaccio; the only saving grace was a potent lemon vinaigrette. The sandwich of Albacore tuna with sliced artichokes, arugula and tapenade was so dry it was like eating tuna-scented sand (next time, the kitchen should try a tapenade mayo). And both the scaloppine Valdostana, with its chewy, overdone veal, and the petti di pollo alla Sorrentina, with its chewy, overdone chicken and watery marsala sauce, offered evidence of a harried kitchen's neglect.
But those edges were soon smoothed by a soothing, creamy tiramisu served in an enormous mug and a chocolate crème brûlée better than any old-fashioned chocolate pudding -- with the added benefit of crispy caramelized sugar. Only the sounds of silence would have been sweeter.
The Giordanis realize the crowds filling their restaurant with clatter are a mixed blessing. "We probably won't do anything about the noise until the end of the summer," says Elizabeth. "The open doors and number of people who will opt to sit on the patio should make a difference then. But definitely in the fall, we're looking at putting special acoustic tiles up. Of course, the funny thing is, there are people who really seem to like the noise and request seats where it will be the loudest."
Now hear this: Campo de Fiori justifies its buzz.
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