South Philadelphia-born and -influenced, second-generation Italian chef Joey Campanaro opened the Little Owl in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 2006 and immediately he had a hit on his hands. That happens a lot in shiny new thing-obsessed New York, but what doesn’t happen very often is that the restaurant is as coveted a reservation 15 years later as it was at its birth.
Renowned across America—that’s not an exaggeration—the tiny restaurant seats only 28 people at a time when there isn’t a pandemic. Over the last year, he has had to “put the entire restaurant on the street. We’re 100 percent outside.”
Campanaro also owns the Clam on nearby Hudson Street and Market Table on nearby Carmine Street, which focuses on seasonal vegetables. And last year, he released his first book, Big Love Cooking, which is part cookbook, part paean to Philly and the old days, and even includes a poem called “Veal Deal” about some classic kitchen characters.
“I started in the kitchen, washing up, when I was 12 years old and had to have a fake birth certificate to get the job—that was summers in Wildwood, New Jersey,” he tells me, explaining how he came to get into the business. “My parents decided that if I had a boss as a babysitter, that would be better than paying for a babysitter!” He says he had “multiple levels of inspiration” and that his brother, who was a chef at Andiamo on Broadway, got him his first job cooking in New York. “My life always revolved around restaurants.”
Before the Little Owl, his first establishment that he has owned, Campanaro was the “opening chef” at a number of restaurants around the city, including Jimmy Bradley’s Tribeca standout the Harrison.
I asked Campanaro what his philosophy was for the Little Owl, and what still drives him after all his success.
“From a food standpoint, super simple. There are natural limitations to having a 150-square foot kitchen. Necessity became the mother of invention. Thankfully, the neighborhood really embraced what I was able to offer. When you decide you’re going to cook for somebody, you’re taking a risk that people might like it or not like it. There’s that search for approval.”
These are his five favorite meals.
Meals at the Saloon restaurant in Philly… all of them. I have the antipasto plate, baked clams, stuffed peppers, steamed clams, langoustines, veal piccata with a side of spaghetti and a side of salad. They offer seven to 10 specials per night. I drink Johnnie Walker Blue and have Tignanello wine. My company is usually my cousin Thomas, the fourth brother on the third floor, AKA Tommy Kash, because he is very handsome and extremely talented. Our Uncle Frankie worked there tending bar before it was a restaurant. I was also very lucky, but also determined, to be a valet parker for Saloon.
The dessert cart is cool. They also offer bread from Sarcone’s Bakery and give you salsa verde with it that makes you crave more.
I was married to Paula in Valencia and Paula’s mother was an outstanding cook. After I lost my job as a chef at an Italian restaurant in Tribeca, I took a sabbatical in Spain. The greatest meal, at Paula’s mother’s house, started with some jamón serrano, tuna stuffed peppers, boquerones, pickled garlic, almonds and favas, bread and olive oil. Then a paella. The broth was made from a boil of cabbage, onion and pork blood sausage. The rice was garnished with olives and lemon and it was the most unique dining experience of my life.
A beautiful salad was served with the paella course, just like at mom’s house. For dessert, we had a hand melon each and some Cava. I remember taking a siesta after that meal and dreaming of a way to remember the technique and flavor of cooking things that all cook at different times, but also if achieved with accuracy, present such a unique opportunity to showcase individual flavors as a whole, in one bite.
Getting pizza at Marra’s on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia brings back very fond memories. One in particular was when someone in the family made a joke and gave me the giggles so hard that I was told to leave the restaurant. So I went outside, around the corner to the window where they were sitting and I continued to laugh uncontrollably. I remember you could also get really great spaghetti and clams and steamed mussels and the pizza was thin and the sauce was sweet. You guessed it, we had the salad afterwards, catching on?
It was Jonathan Waxman’s 60 birthday celebration at a mansion in Annecy, France. We were to shop at local markets, get inspired, and cook with him. He assembled a legendary gastronomical hospitality gang of brothers to share in a very significant celebration of a culinary icon, himself. (Coleman Andrews eloquently shares the details of the meals we prepared.) I was tasked with making tagliatelle when Pio Boffa showed up from Alba with two magnums of Barolo and a perfect handful of white truffles. No pasta machine, no rolling pin, so I found a stepping stool to gain leverage on a wine bottle that we had removed the label from to roll out the sheets and hand cut pasta for a group of the most successful, influential and naturally very nice human beings I have ever met. We had caviar and blini, woodcock, pigeon and pheasant. The stock pot went on and stayed on for the length of the stay and the meals coming out of the wood-fired oven became tastier one after the other.
On my ANA business class flight to Tokyo, you could order anything you wanted and I did. It was so delicious—all of it. I’d be sleep-eating and the flight attendant tried to clear my food and I had to convince her I could stay awake to eat! It worked until I spilled the ramen broth down my chin and into my seat. I succumbed to comfort on this journey and woke up in Tokyo, where my favorite taste was an abalone sashimi near the fish market. I fell hard for udon, Okinawa-style vegetable cooking paired with wines from all over the world, and sake with steaks.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.