Michael Altenberg of Evanston’s Campagnola has a straightforward ingredient-driven approach to fine cooking: seek out the best, mess with it the least, and create a masterpiece. When he and partner Steve Schwartz opened their rustic Italian restaurant in 1996, they launched themselves on a fanatical quest for the best possible ingredients nationwide.
The 37-year-old chef has a culinary degree from Kendall College and cooked for two years at Le Francais, one year at the acclaimed Antica Osteria del Ponte in Milan, and did stints as executive chef at Gordon, Avanzare, and Tucci Milan. He’s learned to be fanatical about freshness.
He has line-caught fish flown in daily from New Jersey’s Peerless Fish, and he orders in small enough quantities to use it all up by day’s end. “Most fish is at least five days old by the time it gets to Chicago. My fish was in the water the day before I serve it,” he boasts. As a result, a simple preparation like wild striped sea bass with al dente heirloom cranberry, black turtle, cannellini, and green string beans, and English garden peas, all swimming in a lobster nage, is masterfully subtle and lets the true fish flavor come through.
When it comes to meat, Altenberg subscribes to the belief that flavor and humane practices go hand in hand. “Animals raised to graze rather than confined to overcrowded pens yield more tender, flavorful meat,” he says.
He has beef and lamb shipped in from Niman Ranch in Oakland, California, “the cleanest purveyor of meat in the country,” he says. (They also supply Chez Panisse in Berkeley, where renowned chef-owner Alice Waters pioneered a similar style of organic cooking.) Niman Ranch sheep and cattle are raised according to cruelty-free husbandry principles established by the D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute. The animals graze freely, aren’t fed hormones or antibiotics (except for therapeutic purposes), and are, according to the Niman press kit, treated with dignity and respect. Until, of course, they’re slaughtered. Then the meat’s dry-aged in temperature- and moisture-regulated chambers rather than in cryovac wrapping, an inferior but more common shortcut used today. Just one bite of the grilled Umbrian-style New York strip supports Altenberg’s case–it has a slight sweetness and is almost fork-tender.
Pork comes from Michigan’s Gunthrope Farms, a fourth-generation organic farm near Kalamazoo where pigs are “pasture-ized,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the animals’ grazing lifestyle. The meat is darker and richer than average pork, including the guanciale, smoked pig cheeks which, he explains, “taste much more subtle than bacon.”
Altenberg buys game from Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas, where sharpshooters in low-flying helicopters pick off the beasts when they least expect it. It might sound cruel, but the idea is that preventing the adrenaline rush associated with fear is better for both the animal and the cook–the animal dies relatively peacefully and the meat is much more tender. “If you’re going to eat meat, the least you can do is assure a humane life and death,” says Altenberg. You can tell the difference in both flavor and texture in his game dishes, from rack of black buck antelope in a Borolo truffle reduction to Seka deer osso bucca.
He swears by the eggs he gets from Indiana’s Swan Creek Farm. His eyes light up–“I don’t know what he feeds those chicks, but the yolks are red and the flavor is unparalleled.” He learned to make pasta during summers in Italy as a boy but struggled to reproduce the rich satiny quality with American eggs. Now, his yolk-only pasta is rich in flavor and color–the agnolotti, a ravioli-type noodle, is stuffed with tender braised lamb shank and bitter mustard greens, and topped with Parmigiano Reggiano. He even gets his clotted cream, used to melt the Gorgonzola dolce for the garganelli pasta, from Rasmussen Farms, a biodynamic farm that follows a lunar calendar and cyclically treats the soil with homeopathic remedies.
He buys cheese from Chicago importer Tekla, where owner Sofia Solomon finds exquisite artisanal specimens. One night the plate included Sainte Maure ashed goat cheese, P’tit Severin (soft, creamy sheep’s milk), Tomme de Vache (creamy woodsy cow’s milk), and Cabra de Murcia, a hard Spanish goat cheese. All are served with dried and fresh fruit, nuts, and a crispy Sardinian parchment bread.
On any given Saturday morning during the warm season, Altenberg can be found at the Evanston farmers’ market, where he gets greens and arugula from Kinnikinnick Farm near Elgin and baby spinach, summer squash, and squash blossoms from Prairie Crossing in Grayslake. These go into composed salads like the fresh and simple chicory alla noci–radicchio and frisee lightly tossed in walnut oil then dotted with toasted walnuts and blood orange segments.
Surprisingly, Altenberg’s enthusiasm for purity doesn’t result in exorbitant prices. Entrees range from a reasonable $14 for simple pasta dishes to $29 for the more unusual game and beef. Now a Chicago spin-off is in the works: Altenberg hopes to open a 150-seat trattoria, food store, and pastry shop at Lincoln and Grace by mid-October.
Right now, though, his next challenge is finding eco-conscious cleaning products for the restaurant. “We’re spending a small fortune to establish ourselves as a ‘clean’ place, so we’re committed to going all the way.”
Campagnola is at 815 Chicago, Evanston, 847-475-6100.
N.N. Smokehouse owner Larry Tucker plans to open N.N. Spice Islands, an Asian-fusion “stick barbecue” place offering a variety of grilled, skewered meats with mix-and-match sauces next month at 3314 W. Foster.
Since Paul Bartolotta’s recent departure, Tony Mantuano has come on board as consulting chef at Spiaggia, where Olegario Soto is acting executive chef. –Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.