As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved meatballs. They are a perfect orb of food and a staple in my house growing up. Load them them in a pot with some onion and garlic, remove them, let fresh tomato sauce simmer and drop them back in. To me, the sound of Sunday’s early football games always mingled with the warm smell of tomato sauce.
During a recent visit, a mini jukebox and Campisi’s starter green salad — the one you’re already picturing, loaded with grated Parmesan, lots of green onions, a tough olive and a single pepperoncini — are my only dining partners at Campisi’s Egyptian. The bar is, like always, Goodfellas-dark. Looking around, you can see how Campisi’s has been banking on the feel of this place. It’s just after lunch on a weekday, but it permanently feels like Friday at two in the morning. Campisi’s forever looks like you might see Joe Pesci asking “You think I’m funny?” surrounded by a table of wise guys.
My lunch combo plate — spaghetti, meat ravioli, lasagna and a meatball — arrives smothered in Campisi's fire hydrant-red marinara.
“Myself, my sister Joanne, we’re here 24/7. Every morning that we come in ... we start the day with a meatball,” co-owner Regina Campisi says.
Sicilian-style Italian food is the equivalent of a poet in 2016: It’s criticized and scrutinized brutally against hundreds of years of classics. Our Italian grandmas are the Keats and Byron of cooking. Our grandmas' cooking is always better than yours. Author and James Beard award-winner J. Kenji Lopez-Alt put it best:
The only 100% unbending, unbreakable law of the universe I know is that if you post an Italian recipe, someone will tell you it's "wrong."— J. Kenji López-Alt (@TheFoodLab) August 11, 2016
“Red sauce makes or breaks you," Campisi's general manager Jimmy Evans says. "That’s the name of the game right there." He talks me through the broad strokes of the sauce: You start with onions and pepper and tomatoes, along with sugar.
On the plate sitting before me, the sauce is as red and sugary as Valentine’s Day. A forkful of meatball reveals beef and mint, an herb Regina Campisi confirms is used in the meatballs. I’m enjoying the lasagna the most (lasagna is my death row meal), but it’s missing that beautiful creaminess from ricotta, the herbaceous aroma from fresh basil or the grassiness of parsley.
Here’s where that poetry factor plays in: Because this lasagna doesn't meet my life-long expectations of what the dish should be, is it “wrong?" I grew up with this food. I love it, deeply. My parents didn’t add tomato paste or sugar to their sauce. My dad made meatballs with pork and beef, and veal on special occasions. I've also grown up with Campisi’s — I’ve had their thin crust, football-shaped pizzas all my life.
Campisi’s must be recognized as a foundation for old-school, red sauce Sicilian food in Dallas. They've been doing "pizza pies" since 1946. It's an icon. The Campisi family has 11 locations, including the newly minted Lubbock spot. The Campisi family, headed by Carlo and Antonia Campisi, moved their pizza (what New York was serving at the time) spot into the Mockingbird location in 1950. Originally called The Egyptian Lounge, the iconic red door and candle-lit booths create a unique vibe.
“There’s a certain mystique to this restaurant. That man right there, eating the pasta, that’s my father,” Regina Campisi says, pointing to the large black-and-white framed shot behind me.
Campisi’s has been a wise guy in Dallas ever since. Rumors of mob ties and conspiracy theories about Jack Ruby and JFK and mafia swirl around it. From a 1999 LA Times article on Campisi’s marketing the “mafia mystique”:
“The younger generations concede that regulars drank, womanized and ran gambling rackets at the restaurant.
But they deny that Joe Campisi's friendships meant the Campisis were running rackets or bootlegging themselves. Indeed, the government had a hard time proving that anything illegal was going on at the Egyptian — though they tried and tried again.”
Sitting with Evans and Campisi, it’s hard for me not to smile and feel a deep sense of familiarity with the restaurant — meatballs and big talk and food as eternal celebration. Customers come and go at Campisi’s, but everyday Regina has a morning meatball. They make them fresh, and I find we’re talking about meatballs and food more than anything else. “My father never believed in microwaves. There will never be a microwave in this restaurant," Campisi says.
That’s what I can appreciate, as long as it's there, about Campisi’s. Food, whether you think it's great Italian or not, comes smothered in their family.
On the way out, I order their all-the-way pizza pie with sausage, chunks of salumi, mushrooms, diced green peppers and green onions, to go. It is as it has always been: Cut into panels, the crust heavily dusted with flour. It’s just pizza, take it or leave it. It’s not like my grandma made, but it’s how Campisi's grandma does it. And, in that way, it can't be wrong.