La Campagna has no sign, so it's easy to miss the restaurant if you're not looking for it in the progression of storefronts in the strip mall. Carmella Fragassi tells me that her sign was 3 inches too big for the town's building code, and rather than redo it, she decided to do without. “If you want to find me, you'll find me,” she says.
Where We Went
Ohio is historically known as the "Buckeye State" after its Ohio buckeye trees. Ohioans are also known as "Buckeyes". If you ever go to Ohio make sure to try their buckeye candies.
After 21 years as a narcotics agent, Carmella turned to the restaurant business. Her first restaurant caught fire two years after opening. It was a big, demanding operation, and after it burned down she decided that the next venture would be smaller.
During a trip to Puglia, Italy, where she went to visit family and reflect, Carmella decided to change the way she wrote menus. With her new restaurant she would follow the practical Italian model of an ever-changing menu based on seasonality, availability, and economy.
She reopened La Campagna in a suburban strip mall 25 minutes outside of downtown Cleveland, Ohio. She wasn't looking for this location, and when it came to her it was supposed to be a temporary situation. It's just big enough for 10 tables; you can see into the kitchen from the front door. The peach walls are covered with racks of wine and Italian imports, some of which Carmella uses in the kitchen and all of which are for sale. There's comfort in all the small details.
Carmella's earliest kitchen memories are of cooking with her grandmothers in Puglia, where she's traveled since she was 14 years old. “If you went to their houses, they never kicked you out of the kitchen. They would teach you how to cook.” Now in her own restaurant, she tells me, “The biggest compliment I can receive is when someone tells me they haven't had something like this since their grandma cooked it.”
Carmella's niece waits tables, her brother helps out in the kitchen, and her sister and cousin jump in from time to time. We begin discussing a recipe she calls “veal pocket” a rack of veal ribs stuffed with meatball mix and then roasted. Carmella can't remember the name and suddenly breaks from her train of thought to call across the dining room to a couple finishing their dinner. “Hey, Uncle Ralph! What did Grandma call that veal pocket in Italian?” Ralph pinches his fingers and bounces his hand in the air: “A-STUFFED-A-MEAT!” He laughs out loud.
Since she's been in business for 22 years, I ask Carmella how much longer she plans to cook. “I can't imagine that I'd ever retire.” And then she adds with all sincerity, “I consider [cooking] a great gift that I can share with people.”
Other Dishes Served at La Campagna
Plates in order from left to right: Detail of an order of bufala mozzarella with pistachio cream; a plate of burnt wheat orecchiette with dandelion greens, cannelini beans, and pancetta; and detail of a roasted artichoke stuffed with a meatball mixture.
If You Go
Restaurant: La Campagna
Address: 27337 Detroit Rd., Westlake, OH 44145
What we ate (and loved): Eggplant Parmesan (which has no Parmesan but pecorino instead), any of the pasta specials, stuffed artichoke, and tiramisu.
Insider tip: As you travel there trust your GPS because you won’t find a sign. La Campagna is camouflaged in a strip mall like some of the best restaurants in the world. Due to its size, the place fills up fast and reservations are recommended. The menu changes daily based on Carmella’s whim, what she’s inspired by, and what’s in season . . . so you really can’t go wrong. And the great thing about this restaurant is that there’s no rush to flip the table and seat the next customer. Once you’re there you’ve got that table for the night. So, sit back, relax, and eat. A lot.