Camino chugs along serving a crew of regulars

Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

There will always be restaurants that change hands so often that it’s hard to keep track. While the little cheese wedge of a restaurant next to the Vinegar Hill Theater has stood as its current incarnation—Camino—for nearly three years now, it was Il Cane Pazzo for three years before that, and L’Avventura for eight years before that. Three reinventions in 15 years isn’t record-breaking for this town, but since the restaurant’s kept the same general aesthetic and the same rustic food with an Italian accent, its name is hard to recall.

I went to L’Avventura for lemon linguine and to Il Cane Pazzo for wood-fired pizza, but after hearing that the spot shuttered in early 2009, I discounted it. Even after hearing that Il Cane Pazzo employee Drew Hart bought the restaurant and would turn it into an artisanal Mediterranean restaurant called Camino, I paid little attention. I just wanted an Italian restaurant with an Italian name in that quirky but charming space that smells of popcorn when you walk in.

Camino owner Drew Hart makes a point to get to know his clientele, serving them himself and mingling with them at the bar. Photo: John Robinson

I hadn’t stepped foot into Camino until this spring when I was passing by one afternoon and noticed life inside. Chef Matt Turner (who came from Crozet’s Jarman’s Gap but has been at Camino from the start), was prepping away in the postage-stamp sized kitchen while Hart was receiving wine deliveries.

The bar in the entry looked the same, the little tables to the left of the bar looked the same, and the six window-side booths that run the length of the 40-seat restaurant looked the same. The inside walls had been painted shades of ochre, sage, and russett, and the outside stucco was painted with the name, meaning “road” in Spanish. Even the menu, while representative of those other Mediterranean countries, was still quite Italian. I’d be back!

Life got in the way and it wasn’t until recently that I returned, my dinner date a regular excited to share his spot. Soon it was clear that regulars make up 90 percent of Camino’s clientele. “I know everybody who is here tonight,” said Hart as he motioned to the other occupied booths. “Our reservation book is all first names.”

At one table was a Virginia wine doyenne with her family and I hear that a certain well-known author comes weekly. Hart describes his patrons as “poets, writers, and well-heeled retirees” who come for a simple pre- or post-theater meal in a place quiet enough to hear.

And the food is good—not scream-it-from-the-rooftop good, but the kind of food that hits the spot on a night when you don’t feel like cooking.

A beet salad goes Greek with cucumber, cherry tomato, kalamata olives, feta, and an oregano vinaigrette. An appetizer of lamb meatballs with a sweet glaze of roasted peaches and toasted pinenuts is unusual but tasty. The pastas, offered in two different sizes, are hearty in either size. Ears of orecchiette cradle chunks of sausage with creamy ricotta tempering the bitterness of broccoli rabe. Linguine teams up with clams and pancetta in a garlic- and chile-laced broth that came across more Far East than Mediterranean.

Entrées prepared on the wood-fired grill proved our favorites. Smoky pork belly sausage topped with sweet bell peppers was nestled alongside creamy polenta; a pile of lemony arugula acting as foil. A bone-in chicken breast came out juicy with the lick of flames on its skin and we wished that its accompanying Brussels sprouts and leek-potato gratin had gotten the same treatment.

The wine list offers about 60 wines with a third of them by-the-glass—a sizeable selection. Curated by Hart, a self-described Francophile, the list remains anchored in the Mediterranean, with Virginia getting only five spots. As always though, you can bring your own wine (assuming it’s something special) and pay Camino’s very reasonable $10 corkage fee.

Desserts come by way of verbal description, a local peach crisp with homemade lavender ice cream winning out over crème brulée flan and flourless chocolate cake. A pleasant surprise was finding Madeira—a wine with an indefinite shelf-life that complements any dessert—among the pours.
Camino’s service is friendly, if not slightly homespun, with Hart and his daughter Aeron splitting the room. Certainly part of the charm for regulars.

Hart’s decision to buy the restaurant three years ago wasn’t immediate. He didn’t want to work the 90 hours a week that restaurant life requires, so he’s doing it his way—serving 15 to 20 people on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays and 30 to 40 people on Fridays and Saturdays. He seems genuinely happy at the end of the night, enjoying a drink at the bar with one of his regulars.