Dallas-style Italian food comes west to Cowtown

Posted Saturday, Apr. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- Can an Italian restaurant from Dallas, whose red-sauce recipes basically haven't changed in six decades, make it in Fort Worth's crowded midlevel restaurant market?

If it's Campisi's, the legendary Big D eatery that has been credited with introducing pizza to Texas, the smart money says the odds are good.

"They have a reputation, a good reputation, a great west-side spot and people know who they are," said David Shaw, co-owner of Shaw's Patio Bar & Grill on Magnolia Avenue and a former president of the Tarrant Restaurant Association. "People will go, and if they do a good job, people will come back."

Dallas restaurateur Shannon Wynne, whose 8.0 Management operates the Flying Saucer and Flying Fish, also gave Campisi's a good chance to succeed here.

"They've been an institution in Dallas for a long, long, long time," Wynne said. "It's hard to tell how that translates into business in Fort Worth, but certain concepts have been able to come over from Dallas and people don't seem to care." Flying Fish started in Dallas and easily segued to Fort Worth's west side across from Rail Head Barbecue, he noted.

The 5,000-square-foot Campisi's will be the ninth but the first full-service restaurant west of Dallas County.

David Campisi owns all but the flagship store on Mockingbird Lane -- originally called Campisi's Egyptian Restaurant because his grandfather Joe took over a bar called the Egyptian Lounge -- which he owns with other relatives. But his firm has management input there too. The restaurant was the most reluctant to embrace point-of-sale order screens and "soprano" pasta with pink vodka sauce. He acknowledged poor service reviews about the Mockingbird store on several consumer-driven rating websites but said such problems were corrected six months ago.

Starting April 22, the restaurant at 6150 Camp Bowie Blvd. will serve the thin-crust, Sicilian-style pizza, crab claws and baked shrimp scampi that have been Campisi trademarks. But $7.95 Tuesday-night spaghetti specials will not be offered. Pasta dishes run $10.50 to $12.95 and pizzas $7.25 to $19.20.

Dishes are made with homemade sauces and sausages and with smoked provolone cheese crafted in Wisconsin to the chain's specifications. A Dallas firm produces fresh ravioli, and Fort Worth's O.B. Macaroni supplies its other pastas, Campisi said.

As with the other restaurants, the new 140-seat store embraces -- nay, exploits -- decades of rumors that Joe Campisi had more than passing mob connections. These ties somehow inspired Kennedy assassination conspiracy authors to sandwich the legend between hard covers. David Campisi has framed blowups of such reported Mafia links mounted around the restaurant.

"If Joe was in the Mafia, he would have been killed for saying too much -- he was always talking," he said.

What is known about his colorful grandfather is that he mixed socially with the New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcellos, that Lee Harvey Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, frequented Campisi's Egyptian Restaurant and that, his grandson adds, Joe Campisi greased his golf clubs and used a smaller European ball to take an unfair advantage on the links.

He quotes golf pro Lee Trevino as once telling his grandfather when they fell behind, "Joe, you better grease up your clubs." (Greasing is said to help steer the ball straighter down the fairway.)

While distancing his family from mob ties, David Campisi can sound street-toughened.

New employees are told, "If you steal from Campisi's, I will hurt you."

To which he quickly adds that there's no need to resort to theft, since he'll give a worker a steak or cash if a request is made, he said.

The same holds true for paid vacation -- while not set, if the reason is good, it will be granted, he said.

Campisi said the idea of opening in Fort Worth started at a 2010 golf tournament at Ridglea Country Club. Initially, he tried to negotiate a lease downtown on Main Street near Del Frisco's but couldn't get the numbers to work. Then last year, a friend notified him that his firm owned a good spot, formerly an AT&T store on Camp Bowie.

It was to have opened in February but problems including the city's insistence on a very large grease trap delayed the opening to April 7, then April 22, he said. In all, about $1 million has been invested, a far cry from the $10,000 it cost to open his first solo Campisi's in a remodeled bagel shop at Coit and Campbell roads in Dallas 20 years ago after he graduated from Texas Tech University, he said.

Campisi says he appreciates Fort Worth sensitivities.

"I know you don't come from Dallas and say, 'We're the best, the greatest,' in any market, let alone Fort Worth," he said. "What I want to say is that it's taken us 67 years to get here, so I'll do the right thing -- invest in Fort Worth economically, socially, spiritually." And he rattled off a bunch of charities and sporting events Campisi's has given money to.

But the practiced modesty has its limits.

"After I ate at Italian restaurants here, I became more confident that we will succeed in Fort Worth," he told the Star-Telegram. "If we implement and give quality food, guests become friends and the money will follow."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

Twitter: @bshlachter

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6150 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, TX
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