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.
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.”
As the succor and blithe elegance of those days fade into memory, a series of cookbooks produced by Silverton and Peel remind us that we didn't imagine it: Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Home (1994), Nancy Silverton's Breads from La Brea Bakery (1996), The Food of Campanile (1997), Nancy Silverton's Pastries from La Brea Bakery (2000) and Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book (2005). The 1997 book includes a dedication to Gordon.
Let us not forget the bakery's shop. For a brief run in the late '90s and early 2000, this was the only place in L.A. that reliably had Maldon sea salt, Colston Bassett Stilton and bread worthy of that king of cheeses. At Thanksgiving, lines ran down the block as customers queued for Silverton's pies.
It's easier now to see the faultlines forming than when we regulars were clinking glasses around the faux Moorish fountain. In 2001, the same year that the James Beard Foundation named Campanile the best restaurant in the country, La Brea Bakery was sold to an Irish agribusiness.
By 2005, news was out that Peel and Silverton had separated. He would keep the restaurant and she was planning what is now the Mozza brand of pizzeria, restaurant and cooking school with new partners including New York-based celebrity chef Mario Batali. She has since done for pizza what she did for bread.
The recession has been less kind to Peel. The Tar Pit, a cocktail-themed restaurant, and a lunch place, the Point, both opened with former Campanile general manager Jay Perrin, swiftly disappeared. Campanile was short-listed as best restaurant in the country by the Beard Foundation in 2008, but the same year the recession gut-punched the country and it was announced that Bernie Madoff had wiped out much of his savings, along with Silverton's. How he kept Campanile's linen ironed, silverware polished and food good for four brutal years since then is nothing short of alchemy. As it approaches closure, the assurance that was old Campanile seems more cracks than masonry. To judge from a chat during a recent dinner, Peel's future plans include mastery of sausage making. Anyone with stock in Farmer John should consider shorting it. Quality may be coming to town.
A measure of any restaurant is how many good cooks it trains. Campanile's record in this regard may be unrivaled. Among the cooks and hosts around town carrying on the Campanile tradition of making notionally everyday dishes seem exceptional are Suzanne Tracht of Jar, Suzanne Goin of Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern, David Lentz of the Hungry Cat, Sumi Chang of EuroPane, Annie Miller of Clementine, Corina Weibel of Canele, Dan Mattern at Cooks County and of course Matt Molina at Mozza. Founding manager and partner Manfred Krankl has gone on to become a respected vintner and the wizards who succeeded him in sustaining the magic that was Campanile's dining room, Claudio Blotta and his wife, Adria, are now successful restaurateurs in their own right at Barbrix and Cooks County. There are more, including the cook's cook, Chris Kidder. To those who are not named here, my apologies.
And so back to the death rattle of what the James Beard Foundation once deemed the best restaurant in America. Whatever Charlie Chaplin may have contributed to the original building converted by Silverton, Peel and partners, the Little Tramp was never so poignant, as Peel is the last man standing at Campanile. To Mark Peel, from a customer who would gladly have had my ashes buried under a table just inside the atrium, this is the deepest of bows. May you exchange the keys to 624 S. La Brea Ave. for keys to the city. You already have them to our hearts.
Emily Green was restaurant critic for the U.K. Independent from 1989-95, after which, until 2006, she was a food writer and occasional restaurant critic for the British New Statesman and the Los Angeles Times. Now based in Altadena, she specializes in environment reporting but still takes time out to write about the pains and pleasures of the table for L.A. Weekly.