An Elegy for Campanile
For nearly a quarter of a century, Campanile on South La Brea Avenue has stood as proof that Los Angeles has a native-born food culture on par with anyone's. It introduced us to the glories of trattoria cooking and reintroduced us to American classics. Its bread did justice to grain, the wines had subtlety and verve. From co-founder Manfred Krankl onwards, it had a series of managers who, in greeting guests, made complete strangers feel like old friends. Mostly, in chef-owners Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton, it had the golden couple of American cooking.
A. Scattergood Campanile
Until it didn't. At the time of this writing, the once-great restaurant is limping through its final weeks until it closes its doors for good on Oct. 31. In late September, news leaked out that its lease soon would be passed to a new outfit. The landlord dealing the blow was Silverton's father. The restaurateur receiving it was Mark Peel, Silverton's ex-husband.
For fans of Silverton and Peel, this is the most painful moment since news of their 2005 separation splintered what had always been a family restaurant. Seven years later, for those who love Campanile, its closure begs the cliché "end of an era," except it's more personal than that. It's the kind of loss that forces one to question if any of it was ever real? If it was, where did it go?
It was real. Look at the family tree of California cooks and it's clear that from the beginning that Campanile hybridized the strongest lines of the Golden State's much vaunted food revolution. In the 1970s, a young Peel was taken under Wolfgang Puck's wing at Ma Maison. He met Silverton after joining Michael's in Santa Monica in 1979. Peel then went to Chez Panisse in Berkeley before returning to Los Angeles and helping Puck open Spago in Beverly Hills.
Silverton, who had trained at the French pastry school of Gaston Lenôtre, joined Spago to run the dessert station and also worked at Puck's Chinois on Main before producing nothing short of a masterpiece in the 1986 book Desserts. Fast-forward past a short stint the couple spent cooking in New York and by 1987, Silverton's mother was pointing her and Peel toward a run-down 1920s Spanish style commercial building on La Brea Avenue.
Legend has it that Charlie Chaplin commissioned the kooky little complex for an office but lost it in a divorce from the child bride thought to have inspired Nabokov's Lolita. Perhaps. This much is checkable: Silverton's father bought it in 1987. In the course of transforming the faux-Andalusian wreck into a bakery and restaurant, its courtyards were roofed to provide Campanile's first two dining rooms, where milky light from the atrium flattered even the most abject sybarite. If you stand across the street or in the parking lot, you can even see the small, turretlike box on the roof that inspired the name, which means "bell tower" in Italian.
When Campanile opened in 1989, the sheer brio of the effort inoculated Silverton and Peel against the ridicule that Americans too rarely receive when giving restaurants what Ira Glass once described as "fake European names." Kitted out with a bakery, bar, atrium, semi-open kitchen and string of dining rooms, Campanile soon meant something that had nothing to do with bells. It had confidence in its own taste. It was suddenly as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have a world-class restaurant skirting the borders of Nate Holden's notorious 10th District. But of course Angelenos preferred rapini to supermarket broccoli! That L.A. had a sourdough baguette to rival anything served in San Francisco became a preening point. We may have been raised on Marie Callender pies, but suddenly we preferred brioche tarts with nectarines and peaches and finished with sabayon sauce. Your child having a birthday party? How about a tower of profiteroles instead of a cake?
Nobody who ate at Campanile in the early days could have been surprised when, in 1991, the James Beard Foundation named Nancy Silverton the best pastry chef in the country, or when Mark Peel received four different Beard nominations for best chef in the Pacific region.
Today, style tags slapped on the place's food such as "Mediterranean cuisine," "Modern American cuisine," "Cal-Italian," "Med-Cal" and "urban rustic" seem as affected as big hair and shoulder pads. A more accurate description might be that it was what Silverton and Peel liked to eat, from slavishly authentic trattoria food to prime rib with thick chips. Us plebs were swept up in it because the couple believed in happenings. There were family nights, grilled cheese nights, gourmet tasting nights. Breakfast service was short-lived, but memories of its cornmeal scone with green tomato jam and crème fraiche chantilly live on. There was always brunch. Eating at Campanile was at once ordinary and special, a quality summed up when, in 1995, L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila described it as a place where she went on days off to find flattened chicken with sharp parsley salads, fried zucchini blossoms and explosively ripe Persian mulberries.
Like any great restaurant, Campanile had fleet managers. I can't claim to remember partner Manfred Krankl's elan during spot visits to Los Angeles from England in the early years, but after moving here in 1998, his successor, Claudio Blotto, greeted me like a millionaire, even though I came and went on a bicycle and paid with a Providian card.
Before the couple separated, Silverton or Peel always seemed to be there. If it was sandwich night in the bar, Silverton was at the pass, fussing over each construction. Did she realize that she had the habit of giving each baguette a reflexive pat as she approved it for the waiting staff? Any regular at the Hollywood or Santa Monica farmers market would see Mark Peel among the Meyer lemons and chard. For decades now, all smart shoppers have had to do to eat well was follow him from stall to stall and buy what he was buying.
Some customers seemed to live in the place. When Quo Vadis chef Jeremy Lee visited me from London in 1999, one meal at Campanile turned into lunch and dinner for every service for a week. Years later, he was still remarking almost prayerfully on Peel's grilling and Silverton's use of vinegar in a sauce for a lemon tart. In a luminous appreciation for Campanile regular Harvard Gordon in the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn See wrote that Gordon "loved Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton as his own children. Like a curmudgeonly old uncle, he'd plow back into the kitchen, snooping and sniffing. He once tortured a sweet lady line-chef about his fish being too well done. 'How do you want it, raw?' she asked indignantly, and tears came to her eyes. He was the tiniest bit pleased that he'd made her cry."