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Dec 31, 2008 08:24 AM

Campagnolo, Vancouver – no bumpkins here

Imagine my delight when we found ourselves hungry and at loose ends for a restaurant choice this past Sunday early, the perfect opportunity to sample the wares at Campagnolo on Main, a new venture from the folks who brought us Fuel.

When we arrived at about 5:30, there were a few tables with Canucks-bound patrons, but the place filled to a good buzz by the time we left about an hour and a half later without any waits for tables (no resos here). Inside it is a bit spare but very much to my taste with concrete walls, lots of wood, beautiful light fixtures and an amazing fabric covered wine bar glowing in the back. Don’t forget to check out the four distinctly coloured loos too.

The four of us grabbed a prime corner banquette and opted to share per the helpful suggestions of our excellent server Lydia, who warned us that the plate sizes were not huge. She also steered the SO and BIL toward a lighter red (Cantina Tollo, Valle d’Oro Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC 2004 0.5 L for $19.50 to be exact) that was well received. I had a glass of the 8th Generation 2007 Riesling for $8 which suited my sweet-white-wine loving self. A glass of the house-made grissini disappeared rapidly (a reorder also; $2) – these spidery fellas are crispy, salty and cheesy heaven.

Onwards to the appetizers: the crispy ceci or chickpeas were the standout for me. Apparently these are rolled in cornflour and other spices then deep fried. Ridiculously tasty with a crunchy exterior and creamy inside ($8). The octopus salad ($9) found most favour with the two gentlemen, probably because they both like octopus :-).

After a short pause, the primi or pasta courses arrived. We ordered three of the four available. My favourite was the carnaroli risotto with rosemary leaves ($16). It had my ideal risotto texture and consistency with hearty flavours including lardons of pancetta. The tagliarini with pork ragu ($15) was very good if a little less complex, and the agnolotti with sage and potato ($16) was successful as well.

Next the salsiccia pizza arrived ($13). We had been watching these being prepared as we could see that prep cook from our table. She obviously knows her business. Nice crunch on the crust without being tough or dry, and just the right amount of toppings. This pie was perfect for four to share.

For our secondi, we opted to share the Sloping Hills pork tenderloin ($17). This dish came with a chubby little cotecchino sausage and a couple of supermarinated cipollini onions. The loin was done to a turn and tender as its name. We added two contorni, the white bean or fagioli ($6) and the polenta ($6). The beans were tasty though we all found the “crackling” a bit confusing: it was more like the pork rinds you get in bags than the crackling our admittedly British expectations had set us up for. It also had a chewier texture than we would have liked. The polenta was cooked perfectly and rich with one of my most-beloved Italian cheeses, Tallegio, giving it just the slightest redolence. I was told this is one of co-owner Tom’s favourites and I can see why.

By now we were all full but as usual I could not resist the siren song of dolci. So we split the olive cake and the panna cotta between two of us ($7.50 each). Both were excellent with a slight edge to the panna cotta which came with tiny bundles of crunchy hazelnut and slices of citrus. The cake lost a few points for an overabundance of cinnamon in the topping.

Two lattes and a cappuccino from Arcalle Coffee rounded out one of the better meals I’ve had this year. This is a coffee I am not familiar with but hope to become so. Very mild but flavourful. Total bill after tax and before tip: $170 for four.

A point to note for those of you dining with vegetarians: there are a number of veg-friendly dishes here which made it very easy to share even with one of our group being of the non-carnivorous persuasion. It does help that she considers bacon a category of its own :-). Also note they are opening for lunch service starting January 5th

I’ve attached a bunch of pix taken with my new digicam (sorry about the white balance problems; I’m trying to learn how to use the thing manually so have pushed to 400ISO hence the less than crisp resolution.) For much better photos, check out

First four pix: the room, the lighting, the entrance to the kitchen, the grissini

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  1. Another four photos: the chickpeas, the octopus salad, the agnolotti and the tagliarini

    3 Replies
    1. re: grayelf

      Three more: the risotto, the pizza and the pork

      1. re: grayelf

        And the final four: fagioli, polenta, olive oil cake and panna cotta

        1. re: grayelf

          Thanks for the great review! I enjoyed it a lot, as I usually do with your writing! :-)

      2. That's a great report, Grayelf. Thanks. It seems like a reasonable price for such lovely food and atmosphere. That risotto sounds especially fab.
        We had a wonderful meal at La Buca over the holidays, but I fear we spent more (maybe we drink too much...). Are there any useful comparisons to be made between the two places (I seem to recall you're a fan)?

        2 Replies
        1. re: waver

          It's been many a year since I ventured into that 'hood @ night-how was it?

          1. re: Sam Salmon

            It's fine. Lots of parking after 7 P.M. (I believe) on Main, which is pretty much always busy.

            If you're worried about your personal safety, the DTES, IMO, is the safest 'bad neighbourhood' of any major city in North America. If you're worried about your car, then I can understand... but I really wouldn't worry about being mugged, etc.

        2. Thanks for the review, grayelf! I checked out Campagnolo last week, too! I sat at the bar for a couple of drinks before dinner. The bar manager was super nice, and they had a great selection of Italian wines by the glass. I tried the pate di campagna (tasty), margherita pizza (I didn't like it that much but mind you, I'm a fan of thin crust pizza and I found their crust to be a tad too doughy), tagliarini with pork ragu (this was my favourite of the evening), penne (good), and Sloping Hills roast pork (perfectly done). I also had the fagioli and polenta! The pork rind on my fagioli was crispy goodness. I also had the olive cake, which I really liked, and the panna cotta, which was I found disappointing and nowhere near as good as the one served at La Buca.

          Like grayelf, I'm also a huge La Buca fan and ate dinner there this week. Waver, here are my thoughts on Campagnolo vs. La Buca. Campagnolo focuses on Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy, and La Buca's menu has food from a bunch of Italian regions. The prices at La Buca are steeper, but the servings are larger, and I find the cooking to be more refined. I'm not sure how to describe this, but the food/flavours at La Buca seem to come together better? I found a few of the dishes we tried at Campagnolo to be oddly flat, but then again, the restaurant's only a month old. Service at La Buca is better and more knowledgeable, but Campagnolo's doing a good job and everyone I talked to was super excited to be working there. The grissini at Campagnolo is outstanding and La Buca only has standard issue breadsticks :o) I'd definitely eat at Campagnolo again, but if someone were to offer to take me out to dinner, I'd still choose La Buca.

          The neighbourhood is slightly sketchy, but not scary. And there's plenty of free parking!

          7 Replies
          1. re: im_hungry

            Thanks for the reply: it sounds like we should really try it out, but it seems not to take reservations. I wonder why that is? It seems to be a growing trend and sadly doesn't really work with the paying-a-babysitter-by-the-hour lifestyle.

            1. re: waver

              Agreed. My brother and SIL live so nearby it could easily be their "local" but they have a six month old so the babysitting issue is a big one, as is the timing. Baby needs to go to sleep right when they should be getting to the resto to avoid lines! Doh.

            2. re: im_hungry

              I agree by and large with im_hungry's comparisons. I think the bar manager is Giovanni and he is super nice (he's the one who came out and gave us a tour and a menu while they were still in construction -- he remembered me and we chatted again on Sunday -- the staff are definitely into working here as i_h mentioned). One of the owners -- Tim -- also made a point of visiting our table and leaving us a card.

              I actually liked the panna cotta a lot and thought it gave the La Buca version a run for its money but the LB one is still king for me too. I prefer the presentation (in a glass) and I think it is richer and creamier. I fear however I am a bit of a panna cotta addict :-).

              I was interested to hear i_h characterize the LB food as "more refined" -- I was thinking the opposite but not in a bad way. That is to say, Durbach's food to me seems more robust and possibly a bit more complex, whereas the nosh at Campag seems a bit more contained, for want of a better word. I like the Italianness of being able to choose all of your courses and sides at Campag very much -- sometimes at LB I find myself asking if they can switch up the sides on pre-set meals which is oh so annoying I am sure. And I could eat glasses of grissini, bowls of ceci, platters of risotto and dishes of polenta at Campag forever and be very very happy. I love it when there are real standout items on a menu you can recommend unreservedly. Now if only they would take resos...

              As others have mentioned, lots of free parking and I don't feel personally threatened walking in that area, though I might think twice if I were on my own. On another board, someone said they had left their Ipod out in their car and it was undisturbed upon their return, though that may have just been luck :-).

              1. re: grayelf

                Hit Campagnolo for another great dinner for four the first week of Feb. This time we had the ceci, the octopus, the beef, the spuds, the risotto, the chicken, the salciccia pizza and the gnocchi special, the salad special and the polenta. I was disappointed that they changed the risotto fairly drastically without letting me know it was different from what the menu said. Apparently they couldn't get the artichokes so they altered the dish which is fair enough but I would have appreciated a heads up and a chance to order something different. On the plus side, the beef and chicken were so well prepared and delicious, and the other dishes too, that I was willing to forgive that gaffe :-). I'll post a few more pix to entice you though as usual they are far too dark to do the food justice -- I really must learn how to get better photos without using a flash. That is Giovanni over at the left side of the bar...

                Side note: the parentals and bro and SIL went for lunch a couple of weeks later and added another positive report to the many out there. As has been reported elsewhere there are a couple of different dishes at lunch including a sandwich/wrap-like beasty called a piadini that I'm anxious to try...

                1. re: grayelf

                  Ventured back to Campagnolo at the beginning of April (so far behind on posts!) with some rellies visiting from the wilds of Onterrible. This time there were 9 of us so I was interested to see how the staff would handle a bigger group -- no worries, stellar service. We sat in what I am coming to view as our regular table just inside the front door. We ordered the ceci x2, the tuna crudo x2, a charcuterie plate x2 with sopressatta, pate and venison salumi, the tagliarine, the gnudi, the agnolotti x2, pizza x3 (salsicchia, funghi and credenza) plus one each of the secondi with a double on the steak. For contorni we had polenta x2, fagioli, potatoes and kale. As per our previous visits, we enjoyed our meal very much, with the tuna being a standout this time (and of course the ceci). I didn't love the venison salumi but that is probably a personal taste. It's also a bit aggravating how small an amount of bread they give you with the salumi platter. And I'd pass on the spuds next time, as they are not special. I am nit picking, however. Here's a few really bad photos of the funghi 'za, the tuna and the salumi. Will definitely be back...

                  1. re: grayelf

                    How was the pizza? The first time I went there, right after they opened, it was outstanding. I loved it. Great dough, lots of mozza... just a really well done pizza.
                    The next two times I ordered it, it was very inconsistent, especially the dough. Maybe the oven wasn't hot enough... I really don't know, but the dough just wasn't very good..... I believe we actually talked about this at one of the chowdowns...

                    Anyway, just wondering if it's gotten better (or maybe I'm just being picky)?

                    1. re: Cancuk

                      We did talk about this. Their pizza crust is too pale, too soft and too sweet....and the oven is not hot enough.

                      I think it is OK to be picky about pizza.

            3. The original comment has been removed
              1. FINALLY made it to Campagnolo after reading about here for so many months. My wife and I shared everything.

                Started with the ceci -- lived up to my expectations (which were raised by reading about them here!) The crunchy ones were my favorite!

                Moved to a fried green tomato salad, which was a special. This was a miss -- maybe because my wife and I have spent some time in the southern US, where fried green tomatoes are a way of life. Corn-meal crust was good, but a bit dry. Tomato slice was almost too thick.

                Moved the tagliarini -- star of the night. Perfectly cooked pasta, ragu was top-notch and the pecorino fit perfectly. I seriously could have ordered another for us to share.

                Then the pork loin. The pork itself was good (not out of this world) -- I found it just a bit bland. The lentils they were served with were fantastic and the homemade sausage that came with it was terrific as well. Also had a side of the roasted potatos (excellent -- flavored with just enough salt and delicious mushrooms) and polenta (good -- loved the fontina cheese mixed in, but they were a little unnecessarily heavy with the olive oil on-top). Had an excellent Valpolicella.

                Finished with a tasty trifle special with fruit from the farmer's market the night before.

                I'd give it another visit for sure -- the pasta alone was worth it. I'd say it fell right around my expectations.

                9 Replies
                1. re: JEheartbreak

                  Thanks for the update, JE. I sometimes find the flavours here less intense than I would like, which is why the tag doesn't quite do it for me, and why the spuds were a miss for us but I don't recall mushrooms in them so perhaps they have changed them. I've also been disappointed by ordering an item that did not appear as described on the menu without having been warned of the change -- a pet peeve of mine. If I'm jonesing for the risott I had last time, I want to be told if it is different from the menu BEFORE I bite into it. Pizza per cancuk's and others observations has its ups and downs -- it's never been bad for us but it has been better on some visits. The ceci have been excellent every time I've had 'em. I'm alarmed to hear they have switched to fontina in the polenta though -- it didn't used to have oil on the top either. Bring back the tallegio!! So a combination of some inconsistency and a tendency to change menu items without "notice" are areas I'd love to see them address, but I'll still go back as I think it is pretty good value for tasty food.

                  1. re: grayelf

                    I have high hopes for Campagnolo.....they have yet to find their legs and I'm hoping that they do. This place is from the same team that brought us Fuel so my expectations were set very high. I have been a three times now and each time I left with a touch of disappointment. I found the food generally underseasoned for my tastes and overall, something is "missing". Still this restaurant is better than most Italian joints in town....the food is good, but I was expecting better.

                    The pizza is a pass. Pizza is one area I had seriously hoped they can set the bar....specifically in the Neapolitan style. I'm not clear on which style they are trying to emulate, but it just doesn't work for me. The crust is not at all to my liking - soft, doughy, sweet, perhaps too much olive oil incorporated into the dough (no oil would be my preference), and missing that puffy charring that I like from cooking in a very hot oven.

                    1. re: fmed

                      I agree with both of you -- clearly the place has potential. They just need to hone things a bit more it seems. It's a little troubling that they are regular tweaking their regular dishes. I appreciate you holding out hope for their pizza fmed, but my fear is that if they don't get it now, it ain't happening.

                      It sits in a really nice spot on the spectrum of Italian places -- above the Commercial Drive scene, but not as "top-shelf" as Il Giardino. I'm hot to try La Buca after reading the thread here.

                      1. re: fmed

                        They're probably using 00 Italian flour in a low temp oven. Doesn't work. You need to bake at least 800 degrees to use that type of flour. They should really hire a "real" pizzaiolo if they want do pizza seriously. I believe that to do pizza well, you need to do just pizza.

                        1. re: tdeane

                          I think your instincts are right about the pizza there. They will need a real pizzaiolo, but I think they should be able to do a good pizza without having to dedicate their entire service to it. A16 in San Francisco, for example, does a great pizza and everything else (IMO)...they have the right gear ( wood fired oven - two actually - one for pizza and one for everything else) and a dedicated pizzaiolo:

                          1. re: fmed

                            What I meant was someone that does only pizza, not an only pizza menu.

                            1. re: tdeane

                              Ack jeez. I totally misread your post. Sorry tdeane.

                        2. re: fmed

                          fmed - you nailed the description of the pizza. I've been two or three times, each time for the pizza, and each time I'm left feeling so disapointed. I genuinely want them to get better at it so that I can go regularly.

                          Someone please let me know when they nail it...