I was a kid when I first stepped into the low lit, red-boothed environs of the original Campisi’s Italian Restaurant on Mockingbird Lane, probably on a Tuesday. My parents took us to Campisi’s at the insistence of my grandparents, who had a restaurant for just about every night of the week. Saturday meant ribs and baked potatoes at Tony Roma’s. Friday meant it was time for a steak and salad bar at Steak and Ale. My grandmother was never seen without her blonde hair perfectly coiffed and a pendant the size of a scarab resting in the folds of her bright pink pantsuit. My grandfather dressed either like a golfer or an undertaker and there was no in-between. The two of them held their Tuesday dinner reservation at Campisi’s rigidly come rain, shine or snow. They ate dinner salads and my grandfather’s favorite salami pizza, every time.
Established in 1946, Campisi’s is frozen in time. I’ve never been inside one that doesn’t feel like the ‘50s. Except now they have iPads and a website. But still, dinner at Campisi’s means waiters are in classic black and white. There are no hipster aprons or plain white t-shirts and suspenders—looking at you, Whiskey Cake. The clientele is largely grandparents which makes sense to me considering my introduction.
The Campisi’s family have a long history in Dallas. (Ask about the Egyptian restaurant sign.) In fact, the night before JFK’s assassination Jack Ruby, who of course shot Oswald, dined at Campisi’s. He was reportedly a friend of the family; they even briefly visited him in prison. Campisi’s and Prego’s restaurants, both owned by the family, have been in town for decades and in all that time, I don’t think they’ve changed so much as an appetizer. Even the newer locations, like the Plano one, adhere to the rules and keep the vibe real.
It works ridiculously well and I love it with blind loyalty.
The meatballs are baseball-sized bites of perfect. They come with sprigs of dark green herbs, swimming in a violent red sauce that once killed a particular armchair in my house when 10-year-old me dumped the plate over. It’s the kind of tomato red you just can’t match.
As for the crab claws, served in lemon butter sauce, they really shouldn’t be as tender and melting as they are. I used to beg my parents to let us order them. These are huge bowls, full of about 50 claws. I would hoard them, gathering a mountain of discarded claw shells on my napkin.
Everything is salty. The dinner salad is mysteriously delicious and it’s literally just iceberg lettuce in some greek dressing. It isn’t topped with so much as a cherry tomato, but chives and little bits of white cheese, pepperoncinis and two large green olives. And these final salt bombs, mind you, have the pits in them, the way nature intended. But holy heart attack, it’s good.
As for pizza, no matter what topping you choose, it’s without exception an oval of crisp cracker dough with a mild floury grain. It’s sliced once down the middle and then into short, skinny rectangles of such a manageable size that you can eat five of them and still feel like you can justify a sixth. Our topping of choice is always going to be salami, cut into even shorter, skinnier rectangles with surprisingly heft and absolutely piled on, sometimes two layers deep near the middle pieces.
At the end of a meal there, you’ll have leftovers in a doggy bag and a plush red booth to flop down on until your grandmother puts down her fork and tells you to sit straight like a lady. Or maybe that’s just me.
Campisi’s is the kind of classic you can’t replicate. Ageless and true to itself, this is Dallas history you can scoop up and devour. When I’m pushing 90, I like to think I might be there, every Tuesday, ordering the exact same thing and it’ll all taste just like it does today.
Campisi’s 4709 W. Parker Rd. #400, Plano | 972.612.1177 || 8100 Dallas Pkwy., Plano | 214.387.0233