By Thea Marie Rood
Photography Courtesy of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC
There are “Italian” restaurants galore—those “endless breadstick” or frozen-pizza-dough chains—especially in tourist areas, which makes discovering Campo Mammoth, in the heart of the charming and kid-friendly “Village,” borderline surprising.
Until, that is, you find out who’s behind it: Mark Estee, likely the most influential chef in the Sierra Nevada. A James Beard semi-finalist, he cooked at Lone Eagle Grill in Incline, ran Moody’s in Truckee, started Dinner in the Barn in Plumas County, opened Campo in Reno and in Sparks, and currently runs Liberty Food & Wine Exchange, which includes a 4,000-square-foot production kitchen, bakery and USDA-approved butcher shop. He also owns The Union, a taproom and coffee house in Carson City, and Chez Louie—the French café in the Nevada Museum of Art. And he is the founder and managing partner at Campo Mammoth.
“Honestly, you can’t name a restaurant that Mark wasn’t involved in,” says Billy Deaver, senior executive chef. “And (in all of them) he puts the farmer out front—he really believes the farmer is the show…and that we’re cooks, not magicians. A lot of restaurants say their food is farm-to-fork because it sounds good. Mark’s restaurants really are.”
Estee also maintains longstanding friendships with farmers and chefs throughout the region—even as he moves on to other ventures. In fact, that’s how Deaver ended up at Campo Mammoth. “I’ve known Mark since I moved to California, about 16 years,” he says. “I had a relationship with Levy Restaurants too, and one day…they called and said, ‘Hey, we’ve started working with this celebrity chef.’ I said, ‘Oh, who is it?’When they said it was Mark Estee, I laughed and said, ‘Tell him hello for me,’ and they said, ‘Wait, you know him?’ That’s how I got the job here.”
Now five years in, it’s a job—and a restaurant—he is proud of and genuinely loves. “Campo, in Italian, means ‘gathering place,’” he says. “In Mammoth, everything that happens here happens in the lower section—it’s really the heartbeat of the Village—and we’re located right there, with a big, beautiful deck, a bocce court, fire pits. You can sit out there on New Year’s Eve or Fourth of July and watch the fireworks. It literally is the gathering place for the Village. Inside, it’s a big, beautiful open-air restaurant—unpretentious, no stemware, but with great California, Italian and New Zealand wines and Northern Italian cuisine.”
And you can bet there is no frozen pizza dough. “We have a VPN certification from the Italian government,” says Deaver, which stands for Vera Pizza Napoletana (vera or vercace means true, genuine or real). To keep this stringent certification, dough must be made with fresh, all-natural, non-processed ingredients and cooked in a wood-fired oven, resulting of course in a delectable pie. “It’s definitely our specialty, but we also have pasta we make from scratch,” he adds. “We have two ladies who work full time, every single day, cranking out pasta.”
Campo changes its menu several times a year, but consistently offers half a dozen specialty pizzas and pasta dishes (including a daily risotto). Deaver says a favorite late winter/early spring dish to order now is the gnocchi, pasta made from a potato dough, with lamb sugo, ricotta salata and Kalamata olives. Or two popular pizzas are always on the menu: the Campo (tomato sauce, salami, sausage, pancetta and mozzarella) and the Bee Sting (extra virgin olive oil, Grana Padano, basil, salami, red onions, mozzarella and honey). “In early springtime, you’ll see ramps and mushrooms sneaking their way onto the pizzas and into the pasta too,” says Deaver.
Deaver also recommends the Grand Board, a tasting platter with California and Italian cheeses, house-made mustard and pickles, salami and crackers. “It’s a great way to end a day on the mountain,” he says. “Get some friends together and order a couple of bottles of wine, the grand tasting platter and sit outside.”
All the ingredients for Campo’s dishes are locally sourced, although Deaver qualifies “local” means something a little different in the isolated—and elevated—Eastern Sierra. “We’re at 8,053 feet—humans sometimes have a hard time breathing here, and vegetables can struggle too,” he says. “We have farms in a one-hour radius that we use in spring, summer and fall full-time, but winter is a different story. Then we turn to farms in the Reno area, Marin County…and Coachella Valley for citrus, greens and fruit. But we flow with the seasons. And we let local farms know what we’re looking for so they can be strategic in what they plant.”
Campo also sources all of their meats and salami from Estee’s full butcher shop in Reno. “He uses Berkshire pigs that are raised locally,” says Deaver. “He gets whole hogs and there’s not a part he doesn’t use.”
Similarly, the Campo bar has several local seasonal brews on tap. “June Lake Brewery, Mammoth Brewery and Mountain Rambler—those are all great beers,” Deaver says. And he recommends the Darcy Farrow as a perfect cocktail this time of year. “It’s ginger beer and candied-ginger-infused bourbon, like a Kentucky mule, with a fun, clean taste.”
Campo Mammoth is open year-round, which is good news for hungry patrons, but equally important for the restaurant’s local employees. “In small towns like this, a lot of places close down during shoulder season,” says Deaver. “But we stay open and employ people year-round, which helps us keep them with us—it’s a great staff that serves our guests well.”
Much as Billy Deaver enjoys his job at Campo Mammoth, it is not all about work. “I love the Eastern Sierra,” he says. “I grew up back east, in the Maryland/D.C. area, and winter there was terrible—you couldn’t be outside, there was wind chill and black ice. But here, even if it snows, you still want to be outside. You can walk out the back door and there is a stream or a trail.”
In fact, Deaver claims he was “a beach bum and a snow bum” when he landed in the Sierra—initially cooking at Northstar—and despite some prodding from his East Coast family, just couldn’t bring himself to leave. “I remember my first year in Tahoe, there was a freak snowstorm that spring, so I skied that day and by evening I was in the Bay Area, standing at a barbecue in shorts and flip flops,” he says with a smile. “And I just knew I was never going back.”
Solidifying the deal: He married a local (his wife is from Truckee) and they have four children, ages 8, 5, 3 and 1. “Three of my kids go to school now,” he says, “and the most amazing thing here—well, to me, and I still get giddy when it snows—is they have ski P.E. They take the kids up to the mountain for three hours every Wednesday. Last year, our (second) youngest got in the swing of things. It’s definitely an outdoor, family place.”
Despite being a little town—4 square miles with a population of 7,500 that blows up to 25,000 in winter—there is also an ethical food culture, according to Deaver. “Lots of the families get a CSA box for fresh organic produce,” he says, which is in line with his philosophy, especially when it comes to the way his children eat. “My four kids really get going on the spaghetti and meatballs at the restaurant, and have never once eaten fast food. Teach them young and teach them often, and they’ll prefer fresh pasta over the ice cream shop.”
Daily happy hour is 4:30–6 p.m., Thursday is Date Night ($50 for a four-course dinner and 50 percent off a bottle of wine), and Sunday kids eat free (with the purchase of adult entrées), 5–8 p.m.
6201 Minaret Road
Mammoth Lakes, CA