Quality, Low-Key Italian At East Amherst's Campobello's

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Campobello's Cucina Italiana
9334 Transit Rd., E. Amherst, NY 14051
Web: Campobello's Cucina Italiana
Phone: 716.636.8770
Rating:    [learn more]
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"Though the Veal Parmigiana was smaller and considerably thinner than the chicken version, it was also crispier, tastier, and topped with a nicely browned layer of cheese."

Tucked into a corner of the same plaza that houses Jonny C's, Campobello's is easy to write off as "just another neighborhood Italian restaurant" - one more of the 200 or so Western New York mom and pop places with the same general menu, food quality, and experience. And in truth, this perception wouldn't be entirely inaccurate: like many of these places, Campobello's is a restaurant that blends into its surroundings rather than standing out, and attracts a crowd of regulars from the immediate neighborhoods. Yet they're fairly faithful regulars, due to attractive prices, good service, and a comfortable, low-key atmosphere. In the numerous visits we've paid the place over the past couple of years, we've often come with or bumped into the same people, and found the place to be very consistent, with a perpetually busy front counter for takeout orders and a dining room with a comparatively relaxed flow, separated by a door that seems to be there to protect diners from the constant ring of phones.

A meal at Campobello's always begins pretty much the same way, with seating either at a table or booth in a dining room that's divided in two halves and staffed by three or four servers. Menus are dispensed, revealing a collection of items that are primarily Italian family fare - four pages worth - and secondarily pizza, wings, and subs, all crammed onto a fifth page. Additionally, a short list of specials is listed on a board as you walk in, and aren't necessarily repeated by the servers after you've been seated. Shortly after placing our order, a basket of obviously fresh but room temperature sesame-crusted Italian bread arrived, along with a mix of butter and spread packets, and our drinks; we had to ask for refills, but our service was otherwise prompt.

On our visit this week, we selected full entrees that came with either a soup or a salad, and both of us decided to go with soups: one picked the Tuscan Chili Soup, an impressively balanced update to the traditional Italian Wedding Soup, here with a slightly spicy, moderately thick red tomato broth and a mix of vegetables, noodles, and pieces of sausage. We both actively liked this bowl, and preferred it to the good but comparatively mild and vegetarian Minestrone. Included salads with prior meals have been on the small and plain side; the soups are more impressive. By comparison, salads ordered separately are considerably larger and reasonably apportioned with nothing fancy meats or seafood; for instance, a Caesar Shrimp Salad ($10) arrives with plenty of cheese and cooked but not grilled shrimp on top.

Apart from soups and salads, Campobello's list of appetizers is very short - artichokes, a shrimp cocktail, and fried options such as calamari and mozzarella sticks, virtually all in the $6 to $7.50 range, and based on prior experiences, good but unexciting. We were looking for something new to try here, so we picked the Stuffed Hot Peppers ($8) from the specials menu, and were unexpectedly offered a choice between two types of filling: breading or cheese. How to decide? - our favorite peppers are always stuffed with both - so we went with the breading, which we tend to miss more. What arrived was a place with four thin, spicy, and obviously broiled peppers, filled with a fair amount of bread stuffing and served alongside a bowl of red sauce. Despite an initial sense that the peppers were a little small and dry, they turned out to pack a little punch of spicy heat and went really well with the chunky red sauce, which tasted of rich San Marzano tomatoes. We both liked but didn't love the plate; it did, however, strike us as a fair value for the price. Even nicer for the dollar was a side order of Sausage ($3.75) that arrived at the same time: it was just two full-sized, mild Italian sausages in a bowl of red sauce, but they were nice, not special.

On previous visits to Campobello's, we've tried the Chicken Wings ($8/10, $13.50/20) - plump and reasonably crispy with too light and mild of a sauce - and the fine subs, which range from $7 to $9. This time, we went with full entrees, each served with our choice of red sauce-covered pastas. One of us selected the Chicken Francese ($12), a large and fairly thick piece of tender chicken breast with a coating of egg and Romano cheese, alongside ziti. Though the chicken was cooked properly, the egg and cheese exterior and its unseasoned interior were a little plain; the ziti's red sauce helped.

Our other entree pick was the Veal Parmigiana ($14), the classic deep-fried, breaded veal cutlet that's then baked with cheese and tomato sauce; we selected angel hair pasta as an accompaniment. Previously, we'd tried the Chicken Parmigiana here and found the portion large but less than thrilling in flavor, its cheese topping melted but underbroiled. This time, the Veal portion was smaller and considerably thinner than the chicken, but it was also crispier, tastier, and topped with a nicely browned layer of cheese. Once we were done with the veal, we were surprised to actually find ourselves eating the angel hair down to the plate - again, the nice red sauce made this possible, and the pasta was cooked perfectly to let the sauce mix in.

Last but not least was the Cannoli ($3.25), the only homemade dessert Campobello's offers; we passed on the pre-made Snickers Pie as a second option. Though one of us - the harder-core cannoli fan - laughed a little at the Cannoli's colored, "festive" sprinkles and dismissed it as forgettable, the other liked that the crisp cone was very generously and seemingly just filled with sweet, smooth Ricotta cheese that had been mixed with mini chocolate chips, and only deducted style points for the unnecessary presence of chocolate syrup stripes atop the cone. The syrup wasn't necessary, though the Cannoli would have been more impressive to both of us had the filling contained some amaretto or nut flavor; less than memorable it might have been, but it was a nice sweet treat.

Overall, Campobello's is the sort of restaurant we'd describe as a trusty neighborhood standby for fans of Italian food, with a larger menu than Luigi's but somewhat less exciting flavors and portion sizes. Across the visits we've paid it, our ratings would range from 2.5 to 2.75 stars; we've settled on the higher rating based on the reasonable prices and the consistently good food quality. Visit expecting a competent meal and you'll be satisfied by the results.

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