Welcome to “Wide Open Table,” a bi-monthly Montana Free Press column on all things food and cooking. “Wide Open Table” is written by Montanan Jon Bennion, who posts recipes and other kitchen content on Instagram as Intermediate Chef.
As someone who was born and raised in Montana, I knew once I started driving on highways that I needed to slow down and keep two hands on the wheel when I passed by the wind-gusty scenic town of Livingston. In the last few years, I’ve started to slow down for another reason — to stop at a restaurant there called Campione.
This relatively young restaurant has been a tasty dining spot for us over the last few years as we traveled from Clancy to the family cabin on the Boulder River in the warmer months. Locals in Livingston have known it’s a treasure since it opened. Foodies around Montana have had it pop up on their radar. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that it recently landed on the New York Times’ 50 best restaurants of 2023 list.
The name “Campione” is the Italian word for “Champion.” The menu mirrors the name with a strong Italian influence, but that’s only part of the story. The true spirit of the restaurant is taking one of the primary tenets of the Italian kitchen — use only the very best ingredients — and applying it in a Montana kitchen with local ingredients.
So the scratch-made linguine and meatballs that’s forever on Campione’s menu is certainly Italian as a dish, but its DNA is very much Montanan, with its pork, beef, flour, eggs and other components all sourced from within a few hundred miles of the restaurant.
That was the vision of Campione’s co-owners, Jeffrey Galli, Josh Adams, and Anthony Sferra, who have more than 50 years of combined experience in the hospitality business. In October, I had a chance to visit with Galli about the restaurant’s origins, their first three years in business, and the news that their Montana eatery had landed on a prestigious national list.
The former general store space where Campione resides on the corner of Main and Callender in downtown Livingston should be an ideal spot for any business, but the previous tenants struggled to make ends meet. So on top of wanting to bring tasty food to Livingston, Jeffrey said, the Campione team wanted a “stable, solid place for the community to gather.”
When the idea of a new restaurant was just formulating in their minds, Campione’s founders were immediately sold on the location. Without a menu, budget, or business plan, they knew their concept of a community gathering place with great local food could thrive there.
Then, with a target of opening within six months, the world threw them a curveball. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic delivered devastation to many existing restaurants, just as Campione was looking to open its doors in late spring. With the lease signed, there was no question the team had to press forward. Campione was able to open in August 2020, a bit later than planned.
Since then, the menu has featured many consistent options that Galli promises will always have a cherished spot at the table. At the same time, the restaurant’s reliance on local ingredients also calls for seasonal specials and small variations to account for which produce, herbs, grains, lentils, and proteins are fresh and available in any given week. A good example is the vegan marinated eggplant dish, which might have more roasted vegetables and a cashew sauce to warm winter diners, while it features more bright and pickled flavors in the summer.
One aspect I especially appreciate in the development of Campione’s menu is creativity and innovation. If you understand Italian cuisine, you probably already know that Italians can be sticklers when it comes to traditions in the kitchen. The folks at Campione have undeniable knowledge of and respect for those traditions, but thankfully they don’t feel 100% constrained by them.
“We just wanted to separate ourselves … and be a little bit more open to following our inspiration,” Galli explains.
A case in point is Campione’s manicotti. I really do try to be adventurous and branch out in my menu choices, but sometimes a dish keeps calling me back. A traditional version might marry tubular pasta with creamy ricotta cheese, herbs, and a bright tomato sauce. Nothing wrong with that.
The Campione version takes a delectable detour, using homemade pasta sheets wrapped around ricotta cheese and caramelized onions, and topped with braised Montana oxtail. The tomato sauce is replaced with a savory “brodo” that really puts the meal into a league of its own.
It’s the kind of dish that helped draw the attention of the New York Times. Asked about the recognition, Galli says the team has gone through a “wave of different emotions,” but that the recognition won’t change anything about their focus on providing a great local spot to eat top-notch food.
If you already know about Campione, you probably understand that table reservations are encouraged, but not required. Campione also has seven seats at the bar that are first come, first served. An undoubtedly tasty experience I have yet to partake of is their Saturday and Sunday brunch, or a reserved spot for their Feast of the Seven Fishes holiday dinners in December. Take-out is also an option for those looking to grab a quality meal and go.
Campione is located at 101 North Main St. in Livingston.
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