Months ago on a lark, just because I happened to be wandering through downtown Palo Alto on a chilly afternoon, I stopped into Campo Pizzeria to grab something warm for lunch.
At the time, the name of the restaurant included the word “pizzeria.” Back then, the kitchen was also headed up by Chef Sean O’Brien, formerly of Myth, Gary Danko and Zinnia, all in San Francisco. I remember the pizzetta dough as quite crisp and the cup of minestrone truly impressive in the way it maintained the integrity of each and every vegetable.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant. Now christened Campo 185, in reference to its address on University Avenue, the “pizzeria” moniker had been jettisoned, though pizzas are still on the menu. What’s more, a new chef now runs the place — Robert Holt, former executive chef of Marzano in Oakland.
Campo 185 is by the same owners as Osteria Coppa in San Mateo and Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay. It has a rustic feel, with bare wood tables, red cafe chairs, chalk boards with specials written on them, and an expanse of large windows that can be opened up on warm evenings. Holt came on board in April, so he may still be doing some fine-tuning, as a couple of the dishes needed some tweaking.
Big-eye tuna carpaccio ($12) brings thin slices of the rich, red tuna on a plate that’s scattered with briny Taggiasca olives, radishes and a generous amount of roasted tomato gremolata. In fact, the amount of olive oil on the dish might be excessive, but it’s so tasty, you don’t mind.
The chopped salad ($10/$15) is quite sizable even for the small. The mound of romaine, radicchio, salami, hard-boiled egg, chickpeas, Caciocavallo cheese, and sunflower seeds is tossed with a Dijon-spring onion dressing that I wished was ever so sharper to better cut through the heaviness of the cheese and meat in the salad . Crisp snap peas are an unexpected and wonderful addition.
We tried two pastas: Tuscan beef ragu over tagliatelle ($16) and saffron cavatelli with Calabrese lamb ragu with pea tendrils and ricotta salata ($17). Both were hearty and comforting, but marred by overly sweet tomato sauces.
You can ask for an egg on any of the pizzas, which is what we did with the Bianca ($17), topped with mozzarella, grana, prosciutto and a fluffy mound of arugula. Unfortunately, our egg arrived overcooked, so that the yolk did not run out when pierced with a knife. The crust was crisp but had a rather one-dimensional bready character to it. If you’re a fan of crusts with air pockets that create various depths and valleys of crispness and chewiness, this crust will disappoint.
Sorbettos are made in-house. That evening, the flavors included one of huckleberry, black pepper and mint ($4). Deep purple in color, the sorbetto had wonderful notes of wine and black tea. The black pepper hits you on the finish with just a little warmth caressing the palate.
Campo is housed in a storied location. Old-timers will remember it as the Good Earth Bakery. Others will recall it as Lavanda Restaurant and Wine Bar. Each of those establishments had a long run. Here’s hoping Campo does, too, after getting into its groove.
Other Downtown Palo Alto Eats: SliderBar Cafe