The first time I met chef Steven Acosta, we were in the bowels of a glorified furniture store. Naturally this is where most people go to see chefs demonstrating the process of mozzarella making. Strange setting aside, I was captivated by the pearly white cheese, stretching ever so gently between Steven’s hands. Looking around, I got the feeling that most of the people in the room didn’t really appreciate what they were seeing, an observation that would explain a lot…but I’ll get to that.
After the demo, I introduced myself to Steven and told him how much I enjoyed the delicious morsels. We chatted a bit about food. I mentioned my recent visit to Scarpetta, a restaurant that Steven says he uses as a measuring stick, a lofty aspiration to be sure, but I could tell he wasn’t kidding. I ended up leaving with a card and an invitation to drop by and sample da Campo’s full repertoire. Fast forward a couple of months, and I finally had the perfect opportunity to visit. My newly minted food friend Todd Sturtz was back in town, so I gave Steven a call, and we made our way to da Campo Osteria.
I had never heard of da Campo before this, it used to be one of the many eateries by star chef, Todd English before Steven took the helm. As usual I had studied the menu beforehand and was excited by the offerings. We took our seats and our host arrived table-side to welcome us. We were given a choice, pick our meal a la carte, or leave ourselves in his capable hands. Only a fool would choose the former. With the game plan in hand, he disappeared into the kitchen to get us started.
First to arrive was the bread and sauce. A simple balsamic/olive oil, a sweet tomato marmalade and garlic spread. Naturally my favorite combo, and the first to disappear, was the focaccia with a slathering of the garlic sauce. For me, tomato option was a little sweet to be served so early in the meal when your taste buds are gearing up for savory.
A small plate with a lone bacon-wrapped date with a shmear of aioli arrived to our delight. The bacon was gently glazed and wonderfully smokey, the sweet date and salty pork was a natural match and was a table-wide winner.
Shortly afterwards, things got serious. Chef rolled out a table, and I knew what was coming. It was mozz time, and I was ready. Before Chef Acosta began, he asked if we knew what burrata was. We all immediately answered in the affirmative, slightly taken aback that he needed to ask. I later found out that many of the diners in the Ft. Lauderdale area are not the most adventurous eaters. Let me just say to anyone reading, if you like mozzarella, you’re gonna like burrata, trust me on this.
With our love for cream filled mozz expressed, Steven got to work, and I got a front row seat. He starts with fresh curds and adds hot salted water, slightly below the boiling point, to get the curds to melt. After much stirring, stretching, filling and tucking, a bright white orb was presented atop a mountain of local heirloom tomatoes and house made croutons.
In my lifetime, I’ve probably consumed over 100 lbs of burrata and mozzarella. If I were to rank them all, this would break the top five no problem. The exterior is firmer than the mozzarella you can buy in water and it’s also served just above room temperature. This caprese, panzanella salad whatever you want to call it, had some of the boldest flavors. The best part of the dish? The ridiculous slurry that formed at the bottom of the bowl from the cream, balsamic, tomato caviar and garlic infused oil from the croutons, so addictive I’m almost getting withdrawal.
We were obviously smack dab in the “delicious giant sphere” part of the meal, because two softball sized “jumbo” meatballs arrived. Chef assured us that these meatballs were practically newborns, they’re rolling up the fresh ground mixture of veal, beef and pork, and browning them one at a time. I hate those dense, flavorless, overcooked meatballs you get at many a mediocre Italian joint. These were on the other end of the scale, moist, tender, and packed with flavor, something you’d imagine that ideal Italian grandmother would make. The zippy tomato sauce offset the heft of the meat, with copious amounts of parm and basil to finish out the rustic theme. In my bachelor days, I would’ve ordered two of these to go and made a night of it.
Things slowed down a touch with a couple of small plates. Crispy eggplant with apricot-chili agrodolce and veal cheeks braised in a barolo reduction with purple cauliflower and an artichoke chip. Normally I like my eggplant sliced thin and pan-fried in olive oil ’til crispy. This was a new preparation for me, cut into cubes and deep-fried. The eggplant retained its moisture beneath the seasoned crust, which saved the veg from the blandness that often results from too thick a cut. As for the cheeks, so tender they hardly required silverware, the natural flavor of the veal was the star, accented by the subtle barolo reduction. A bite of artichoke chip (which Steven needs to put in bags and sell they’re so good) added some salt that highlighted the veal even more.
At this point in our Italian feast, we were all ready for a pasta dish. Chef did not disappoint with three, hockey puck sized short rib ravioli topped with his signature tomato sauce. This was another favorite dish of the table, although anything with short ribs is bound to excite. The photo speaks for itself, this was Italian comfort food at its best.
The last of the savory dishes was something of an experiment for the boys on the line. It was da Campo’s take on a “surf n’ turf”, with crispy pork belly and seared ahi tuna. It was served with roasted fingerling potatoes and brussels sprouts. Let me just say, the concept of this dish is fantastic, pair two moan inducing proteins on one dish and let the food do the talking. That being said, I think it still needs some tweaks. While the flavor of the pork belly was great, it was a little tough, and the skin was more chewy than crispy, not the usual wobbly, unctuous piece of fat I look for.
** UPDATE ** I had a chance to visit da Campo and Chef Steven again recently. I’m excited to report that the “surf n’ turf” has indeed been tinkered with, if not reworked completely. Steven killed it with this iteration, scrapping the seared ahi in favor of sweet jumbo scallops. The textures work perfectly now, the pork belly was cooked just right this time, achieving the fatty jiggle that was missing before, and the plump scallops are the perfect partner. The fingerling potatoes and sprouts have also been tossed, with chanterelle mushrooms, a few schmears of black garlic mascarpone and light dabs of tomato agrodolce in their place. I managed to pull the chef off the line for a moment to make sure he never changes this dish! Get to da Campo NOW and try this, though I doubt it’ll be leaving the menu anytime soon.
The second suggestion might just be my opinion, but I’ve never been a fan of searing a wonderful piece of tuna, give it to me raw with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and I’m good. I think there’s a lot of potential here with a little reworking.
For the finale, we were given a choice for dessert, but my ears turned off after I heard tiramisu soufflé, which just begs to be combined into tiramisoufflé. It arrived all puffed up with eggy braggadocio with a crown of powdered sugar and accompaniments of mocha ice cream and mascarpone. A quick poke with a spoon paved the way for the ice cream and mascarpone to mingle at the molten core. We were all beyond full at this point but as is always the case, the dessert stomach allowed multiple mouthfuls of the sweet soufflé. The bottom layer of lady fingers and a smattering of chocolate chips pushed this dish over the edge. A word of warning, don’t attack this bad boy without friends, this is serious business.
We had a chance to chat with Chef Acosta after the sumptuous siege came had ended. He is truly passionate about his food, with the creativity and drive to deliver some top-notch cuisine. When he rattled off a few of the more adventurous dishes he’s come up with, we all perked up, only to find out that he hesitates to put them on the menu since earlier experiments didn’t sell. Unfortunately, as I feared at the mozzarella demo, the demographic of Ft. Lauderdale just doesn’t seem to be receptive to the new and exciting. The menu at da Campo already sports dishes like squid ink tortellini stuffed with king crab, or suckling pig confit with chanterelle mushrooms and sheep’s milk ricotta, that will impress if you’re willing to give them a shot. To all locals out there, I implore you, widen your horizons beyond mozzarella and ravioli, try something you’ve never heard of, give the guys free rein to flex their culinary muscles and I guarantee you’ll roll home with a silly grin.
As for the comparison to Scarpetta, I’ll say this, I had two completely different experiences at each restaurant. At Scarpetta, while the food was absolutely amazing, I got the feeling that there was a little laurel leaning going, and rightly so. They’ve figured out their recipes and they can crank them out night after night, but somehow the soul of the restaurant gets lost.
At da Campo, you can feel the creative energy, the attitude, resulting in food that is rustic, bold, and top shelf delicious. The menu is a constant work in progress, with unbelievable items that I hope never leave, and others that are diamonds in the rough waiting to be refined. So to the crew at da Campo, I beg you to hold on to that hunger to create, don’t let the timid eaters discourage you, because there are other true food lovers like me looking for places that can surprise and delight our jaded palates, and da Campo Osteria is that place.