Campione Roman Restaurant Livingston Montana

Indulge in Authentic Roman Flavors of Campione: A Culinary NYT Top 50 Greatest Restaurants in America Journey to Remember

On the corner of Callender and Main Streets and tucked back in the hollow of the surrounding windows, that both capture and curb the natural light inside; where the autumn leaves collect and whirl in the wind, and the unnatural whine of the occasional candy wrapper scratching at the rock forecourt and metal post is amplified by the buildings incurved façade, is the inclusive Livingston, Montana restaurant, Campione Roman Kitchen.

It was the clap of the fallen leaves caught under the façade against the sky-blue painted brick that lifted my attention. I shuffled around the front looking for a flaunted menu, and, curious about the empty, dimly lit restaurant, I pressed my face close to the glass, my hands cupped and shaped over my brow to offset the light of the early afternoon. Inside, in the open concept kitchen, I could see a handful of prep cooks prepping for the night, there were chairs atop beautiful hand-carved carpentered wood tables, and a man with short, salt and peppered curly hair waving at me. I stepped back as he unlocked and opened the door, “Hi! I’m Jeff.” “Hello, Jeff, I’m…James. I wanted to get a feel for your restaurant.” “Well, we are booked tonight, James; however, we do have open bar seating. We only have six barstools, and they’ll fill up fast. We open at five, I recommend you get here about fifteen minutes early.”

At ten minutes to five, I was standing in line, a row of people in their light jackets and beanies, rubbing their hands together, and shaking each leg every few minutes to get the blood moving. Most of these people have been standing outside Campione for the last half-hour, without a reservation, hoping to sit at the bar. There were six people ahead of me, and I was number seven; the hostess unlocked the restaurant door, and started inquiring about reservations, but all of us were hoping to beat the odds. My name was put on a list, I was the last of the first walk-ins, and Campione was already full. I wandered the downtown streets of Livingston, Montana, trying to work out the subtle allure of the sleepy town in the early months of Fall, and biting my time.

I sat on the furthest stool to the rear of the restaurant. The sounds of the open concept kitchen seemed almost organic. Pots and pans resounding irregularly like chimes in the wind, the fire searing and roaring searching for the perfect touch of heat, the muffled whispers and yells of the voices in the kitchen in a language that is familiar but not quite fluent. And then rose the tête-à-tête of the floor, the volume of voices growing to compete with the flocks at the larger tables, and the balanced tone of voices struggling to contest comprised, harmonically with the elevating dialect in of the kitchen. As they came around to share the evenings specials, I was enveloped already by the orchestra of cuisine, the sounds of the menu, of food, of eats, and a little tipsy from a delicious red wine.

I ordered the Lamb Ragu, a safe choice, and probably a safer choice than I’m used to making in a restaurant like Campione. Campione is listed as traditional Roman Italian, and their food is very traditional, if traditional Italian ingredients came local from the farms and mountains of Montana; the lamb from a few miles away, the produce grown closer even than that. The ingredients at Campione are fresh, but they are fresh by standards greater than what might be considered legally, “fresh.” The Lamb Ragu was unbelievable, the linguine cooked to perfection, the lamb melting in my mouth at the caress of the tongue, afterward I felt embarrassed, because all I wanted was to hold my plate out over the counter, “More please; please, sir, I…I want some more.”

The third annual New York Times restaurant list was published on September 18th, 2023, “American’s Best Restaurants 2023,” and Campione is listed among the country’s greatest, along with Austin’s Este, LA’s Yess, Chicago’s Daisies, New Orleans’ Mamou, and New York City’s Torrisi. When it comes to food, honors like this are rare, and Campione is as unique and well deserving as the rest. With that said, I have discovered that, if you are unimpressed by distinction, if having the opportunity to sit down at the world-renowned tables of 2nd Street Bistro, patronized by Anthony Bourdain and Jim Harrison, and featured on Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, does not matter to you; if shortlists and notoriety equate to little more than new and bigger fences blockading an open plain, and if the New York Times is good only for cleaning and wrapping trout, then, it will not matter where you find yourself browsing the menu, because any one restaurant in Livingston, if not already barred with critical acclaim, is a restaurant yet to be discovered.

Still, Campione Roman Kitchen is really f$&king good, and if you are spending more than a couple of nights in town, well, it would be stupid not to eat there. You can expect them to be fully-booked every night of the week, except for Monday’s and Tuesday’s when the restaurant is closed. Make a reservation and relax at one of their beautifully carpentered tables with a bottle of one of their amazing wine selections, or don’t make a reservation, and allow the spontaneity to guide you through the conversation in line outside the restaurant and being seated and eating at the bar. An equally good albeit very different Campione experience, in either case, your experience will be an experience that you will remember. Don’t forget to savor every bite, I learned the hard way to savor, because as far as I was concerned my first and last bites, may as well have been the same, and when I looked down at that untenanted plate in front of me after inhaling the Lamb Ragu, I really was all but prepared to implore the attention of attendant, and beg for more. 

I left and strolled, with my hands in my pockets, the cold evening air as fresh as the herbs, leek, and slow cooked tomato garnishing my meal, tapping my toe at small rocks on the sidewalk on the short walk back to my hotel, and still feeling the way the linguine dissolved in my mouth. Campione Roman Restaurant a New York Times Top 50 restaurant of the U.S., in Livingston, Montana.

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