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Inspired Italian: La Campagnola

by Brian Freedman; Photo by Douglas Bovitt
La Campagnola
439 Oakshade Road, Shamong
(609) 268-0600
3.5 forks Unless you live nearby, there’s no easy way to get to the Township of Shamong, tucked as it is into the crook of the sprawling Wharton State Forest. So by the time we pulled into La Campagnola’s parking lot, the pressure was on: We were hungry, tired of driving, and in desperate need of a decent meal. Fortunately, this is exactly the place to soothe traffic-frayed nerves. It’s a big space, and the convivial bar, the dramatic Italianate décor and the heft of the menu are enough to let you know right away that you’re someplace familiar, even if you’ve never been here before. Soft, stretchy homemade focaccia arrives soon after you’re seated, the onion-sweet tomato sauce, garlic and flurry of Parmesan nice touches of home, no matter how far away that may actually be. Just be careful not to fill up on it—the spiedini alla Romana is even better. The menu describes it as “Chef Michael’s version of fresh garlic bread,” but that’s an understatement, the carb equivalent of saying Roger Clemens was just a pretty good pitcher. And speaking of that troubled baseball player, the spiedini is garlic bread on steroids, an aromatic, densely flavored French loaf rich with garlic and butter, its crosswise slices stuffed with melted mozzarella, the entire torpedo floating on a sea of homemade tomato sauce. Alongside a glass of wine, it’s a meal in itself. Next, plump clams arrived in a generous bowl of fra diavolo sauce, a kicked-up marinara of pitch-perfect spiciness. We also tried a special of fried tomatoes, which took full advantage of the bounty of the fading New Jersey summer. Palm-thick slices were battered and fried until the outside crackled and the inside was slightly soft, and were utterly delicious as a result. Our visit was near the end of tomato season, and this was a fitting swansong to the summer’s excellent harvest. Caesar salad—a massive portion even when it’s an upgraded side dish to pasta, for a $4 supplemental fee—was a textbook rendering of the Italian-American standard. Garlicky and hinting at anchovies’ pungency, the dressing was applied liberally (some might argue a bit overpoweringly) to snapping-fresh romaine. Croutons, made in-house, were scattered throughout, and soaked up a good swath of the dressing without losing their crunch. Entrees were a half-step down. Pasta Campagnola, for all its promising marquee ingredients, was uninspired. The spinach fettuccine was overcooked, and the cream sauce, liberally studded with sweet onions, prosciutto and peas, was nonetheless under-seasoned. The dish was decent, but a more aggressive application of salt would have made it excellent. Veal carciofi, too, was a touch bland, the medallions of milk-fed meat frustratingly tough, the white wine-lemon sauce lacking verve. Only the artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes stood out, though they overpowered everything else. Most of the desserts are brought in from an outside purveyor, but the peanut butter pie is still worth ordering. Though it was a touch too sweet, it showcased its star component well. Bread pudding, however, is made in-house and with evident care and pride. It was delicious, its aroma of orange zest matched brilliantly with the accompanying Grand Marnier glaze. Our waiter was exceptionally friendly, if occasionally less than thorough when asked for more detailed descriptions of particular dishes. Still, everyone, it seems, is greeted and treated like regulars here, even if they live nowhere nearby. When a restaurant can make a complete stranger feel the love—even one who drove a good distance to get there—it has accomplished its most important feat. E-mail us at Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 7 (October, 2010).
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