The Camp in Costa Mesa is an innovative and fun destination with assorted sports-related shops and seven different restaurants ranging from 118 Degrees, serving raw vegan food, to Valhalla Table, featuring sausages and beer. Ecco has joined the collection, occupying the large space to the rear that has housed two previous restaurants. This new hip spot is definitely worth searching for, since you can't see it from the street. You must take a very brief walk from the Camp's parking lot, through a miniscule forest, to arrive at this ultra-modern Italian trattoria.
The reasonably priced menu was created by Executive Chef Kris Kirk, lately of Sage on the Coast. There are only two entrées, both from the wood-fired grill — a half chicken and veal Marsala — but plenty of starters, salads, pizzas and pastas as well as a nice selection of sides.
You can begin with a wood-grilled artichoke, a salumi or cheese plate, or perhaps a goat cheese-stuffed squash blossom, to mention a few.
The better-than-usual focaccia bread had been warmed in the oven and had a bit of crust. It was served with an intriguing green dipping sauce based on parsley, anchovies, garlic and serrano chilies. We began with a classic Italian chopped salad of frisée, garbanzos, onions, fennel-salami, tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cubes and pepperoncinis in white wine vinaigrette. This may be the best chopped salad we've ever tasted. Often, the vinaigrette is heavy-handed and drowns the other ingredients. Not so here. The balance of this salad was perfect. It was full of bright, clean flavors enhanced by just the right amount of excellent dressing with just the right proportion of acidity.
Pizzas come with the puffy, slightly blackened edges that only a wood-burning oven can produce. There is classic Margherita, a white pizza with crème fraiche and several veggie pizzas as well as sausage, prosciutto and salami. Additions include arugula, pancetta or an egg.
A raw egg baked on pizza is very common in Italy and a favorite of ours. We added it to their veggie pizza, which has basil pesto instead of tomato sauce, eggplant, asparagus and goat cheese. When the piping hot pie arrives, you break the yolk and it oozes out all over: yum. The eggplant was cut in small, thin rounds that became crispy in the oven. The pesto and goat cheese gave this very tasty pizza even more pizzazz.
We passed on the pastas, which include Bolognese with pappardelle (wide ribbons), orecchiette (little ears) with sausage and mushrooms or ricotta gnocchi with sautéed shrimp and arugula pesto. There is also bucatini (fat spaghetti with a hollow center) in puttanesca sauce with olives, tomatoes, anchovies and capers.
What a difference a wood-fire grill and proper timing can make! Our half-chicken came with beautiful mahogany-colored skin and moist, juicy flesh. Both dark and light meat were cooked to perfection; so simple but so good. The jus had been lovingly prepared and seasoned, leaving just a hint of fat for depth of flavor. Accompanying the bird was braised kale and a cannellini bean medley, which also benefited from resting in the delicious jus. The beans were mushy, but the kale was lovely.
The selection of sides includes a white corn salad, the quintessentially Italian broccoli rabe, fingerling potatoes and assorted fresh vegetables. We chose the grilled polenta cake with fontina cheese and herbs, and it was the only boring dish we had. Both the texture and flavor were pallid.
Making use of the grill one more time, Chef Kirk fired up some fresh white peaches that he paired with blueberry sauce, vanilla gelato and a crumble amaretti cookie. The smoky flavor would have been a great idea if the peaches had been sweet, but alas, they were not. The season is past its peak.
If you are a Camp "regular," we think you'll be delighted with this new addition, and if you are unfamiliar with the Camp, Ecco is a great reason to get to know it.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Where: 2937 Bristol St. No. A-103 in the Camp
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday
Brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Appetizers: $6 to $12
Pizza and pasta: $12 to $16
Grill plates: $18 to $20
Bottles: $24 to $60
By the glass: $6 to $15
Corkage fee: none