October 13, 2006

Move over Michelin - Campo di Bocce (Livermore)

When friends invited us to join them for dinner at Campo di Bocce in Livermore we accepted, but without our usual enthusiasm for trying out a 'new' restaurant. I'm typically hyper-critical of Italian restaurants -- they have to be *really* good to get my attention and merit a return visit.

Piatti's done it.
Capellini has done it.
Vivace's done it.
Campo di Bocce's Los Gatos location hasn't even come close, so I wasn't optimistic about their new venture in Livermore.

John plays in a league, so we're at Campo - Los Gatos once a week. We usually make alternate arrangements for dinner. We dine at Campo just often enough to remind ourselves not to. Come on people. It really doesn't get any easier than Italian food. Our chief complaint is over consistency. When the kitchen staff is having a good night what emerges from its confines won't win any awards, but it's edible and not terribly unpleasant. When it's a not-so-good night, all bets are off. So asking for a menu is like flipping a coin -- you're never quite sure what you're going to get. Service is equally spotty -- it can range anywhere from pleasant to surly to non-existent.

We knew that the management planned to hire a "real" chef for the Livermore facility, and a tour during construction mid-summer included a menu preview that had us intrigued. But experience indicated that at least in terms of food, Campo scores much higher at creativity than execution. With that in mind, when our friends suggested Campo Livermore for dinner I was curious but not particularly optimistic.

As I scanned the specials board on the way to our table, I reevaluated:

Special Salad of the Day: Mixed Greens with Hearts of Palm and Seared Scallops in a Vanilla Vinaigrette. Hmmm.

Soup of the Day: Roasted Winter Squash Bisque. Hmmmmm.

Dessert of the Day: White Chocolate Hazelnut Ravioli. Okay, now you've got my undivided attention.

A quick segue... I'm notoriously bad at deciding what I want to order -- I can linger over a menu for a good twenty minutes narrowing down my selections. But the menu at Campo provided no temptation; I was having a cup of the soup with the salad, thankyouverymuch. John ordered one of the pasta dishes. Our dining companions chose spinach canelloni and the grilled salmon in a pesto crust. And an order of calamari for the table.

First pleasant surprise: the service was professional, courteous and efficient. Followed quickly by the second pleasant surprise: the calamari didn't suck. It wasn't the best calamari I've ever had -- I prefer a paper-thin crust -- but it was well seasoned and cooked perfectly, with none of the rubbery texture that's the hallmark of the sister restaurant. The soup arrived in short order and continued the kitchen staff's winning streak -- it was rich and creamy but not heavy, seasoned perfectly, a near-perfect accompaniment to a blustery fall evening.

But the salad -- the salad had my inner Bruno screaming ten! Ten! TEN! The scallops were seared on the outside, rare on the inside. There were six of them -- certainly adequate for an entree salad. Interspersed among equally generous portions of lightly marinated hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, red onions, red bell peppers, over a bed of crisp romaine. Dressed liberally but not sodden with the single best vinaigrette I've ever experienced. Vanilla. Vinegar. And they worked together. Beautifully. Brilliantly. The salad sold me. The salad brought me back for more...

You got it, a return visit. The very next night. To watch the North American Bocce Championships yes, but also to get another taste of Chef Tony Murray's genius. This time we dined on the patio. We started with the artichoke stuffed with Italian Sausage and dressed with aged balsamic vinegar. Seven, in my best Bruno voice (but then I'm not an Italian sausage fan). Again in a departure from the standard set in Los Gatos, the salad of the day is in fact a salad of the DAY -- not just a different fish slapped on top of mixed greens with gorgonzola and Italian dressing. So I didn't get another shot at vanilla goodness. Thursday's salad was grilled swordfish over romaine, surprisingly sweet tomatoes, hearts of palm in a hearty Italian vinaigrette. Not over the top like the scallop salad, but still a solid 9. For dessert we indulged in the white chocolate ravioli: three mounds of hazelnut ganache enrobed in white chocolate and drizzled with raspberry red sauce.

Okay, so it's not exactly a Michelin star, but with two visits in as many days, Campo Livermore joins some amazing bay area establishments on my list of must-try (and often repeat) Italian restaurants. And I haven't ventured far off the salad menu yet. So if you're touring "the East Bay’s very own wine country," and find yourself hungry with some time to kill, go. Check it out.

Campo di Bocce - Two Northern California Locations
565 University Avenue - Los Gatos, CA 95030 - 408.395.7650
175 East Vineyard Avenue - Livermore, CA 94550 - 925.249.9800

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DM said...

Dude, forget about Capellinis. If you are going to eat Italian in San Mateo, you should be eating at Bella Mangiata (http://www.bellamangiata.com/). Far better in both food and service and more consistent to bot.

wheresmymind said...

You need your own rating system!

Karen said...

We went to Campo di Bocce in Livermore with friends for a friendly game and dinner. Wonderful! The service was great, good food and good fun. We'll be back.