Chef Alex Stratta of Campo Italian Bistro

Chef Alex Stratta of Campo Italian Bistro

8260 N. Hayden Road • campoitalian.com

Born and raised in the hotel dining industry, Chef Alex Stratta has experienced more than a fair share of different cuisines in his 40 years in the restaurant business. Through the highs and the lows, he’s kept his cool and recently opened his latest concept, Campo Italian Bistro. After traveling all around the world, he’s finally put down a few roots in Scottsdale and continues to grow. 

 

Where are you from?

I was born in Wisconsin, but I was raised all over the world. From Wisconsin, my family moved to Pakistan, then Malaysia and Singapore, Mexico, and Rome. My parents were in the hotel restaurant business. I’m a fifth-generation hotel/restaurant person, so we’ve lived a little bit of everywhere.

 

When did you move to Phoenix?

The first time was in 1989 to open The Phoenician. I was here until 1998, then I moved to Vegas and moved back around four years ago. 

 

Did you know you always wanted to be a chef?

Not particularly, but I always knew that was the direction I was heading. I was born and raised in it and had a lot of opportunities. It seemed like the natural thing to do, and I took advantage of knowing the industry well. I had a good idea of what fine dining service would be, plus I speak several languages, which helped me understand different cuisines. 

 

Your parents are from Italy and France. Did that help shape your style of cooking?

My strengths are more with Mediterranean foods. As far as a base, I would say yes. My experience in the south of France, I think, shifted everything to a Mediterranean focus.

 

Who taught you how to cook?

I worked at hotels for my dad. He was trying to get me into business at an early age, and I wasn’t sure about it because the suit and tie didn’t seem very exciting. I was the boss’s kid, you know, so they put me in the kitchen. I hung out with the chef, but I learned how to cook passionately and with a sense of purpose in Monte Carlo and Monaco. 

I was taught by an excellent chef – Alain Ducasse – who was and still is a big deal. He was in the kitchen at the time as a young man, and I gravitated toward learning – everything that I already knew from working in other restaurants – more from him, like a clean slate. He showed me the foundation of a restaurant.

 

Did you start from the “bottom” and work your way up?

I worked in the front of the house as a waiter. Being in the hotel business, I worked in maintenance, cleaning the pool – a little bit of everything. I worked as a dishwasher at a steakhouse in Connecticut. I got lucky early in life – I went from line cook to executive chef. I was thrown into it, but I was a hard worker, so it worked out.

I was executive chef at Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician in 1989. I was 24, so it was a big deal for me. After that, I moved to Vegas and was offered a job working with Steve Wynn at the Mirage. I opened three restaurants with Steve and then opened my own, called Tapas. Vegas was nonstop, full blast, going all the time. I did that for 13 years, and then I was ready to get out of the craziness, so I moved back to Phoenix.

I did some consulting jobs at resorts around here, but I could never find my traction. I got back on my feet and started on my next project. 

 

What’s the story behind Stratta Kitchen and how it became Campo Italian Bistro?

Campo opened this year, but it was originally called Stratta Kitchen, which opened in October of last year. We started getting the financing and stuff together in 2019, and it took us a year to get all set, then the pandemic hit. We were ready to open in April, but that’s when everything was terrible, so we held off until August 2020. 

The concept, I think, didn’t work for this particular area. It was fast-casual, Mediterranean, healthy, plant-based – it was a niche that would have been better in a high volume spot. We realized it wasn’t going to work, so we closed that down, switched concepts and opened Campo in June. From the jump, it’s been ‘off to the races;’ it’s been wonderful.

 

What’s the inspiration behind new dishes?

I’m inspired by history, tradition, and seasonality, but more so tradition and staying true to certain types of cooking. I’m a nerd when it comes to food history. I like knowing where things come from. 

I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and some of these dishes are part of my repertoire – what I call my “sucker punch” dishes. Everybody likes them; I like them, but that’s not the ultimate goal, right? It’s about what people like. I love working with fresh pasta, seafood and vegetable preparation. 

One mark of a really good cook is how they handle vegetables, fruits and legumes. It’s a matter of how you extract great flavor from simple ingredients like carrots or a piece of celery. 

 

What are a couple of these sucker punch dishes?

Short ribs! Or the short rib pasta, the meatballs, all of the pizzas. If people don’t like them, it’s because it doesn’t fit their taste. Or we messed it up, but we try to avoid that [laughs].

 

What’s a challenging dish you’ve had to cook?

I’m pretty good at cooking. What’s challenging is being able to execute something really well at a high volume and pace. I could make one nice bowl of risotto, but try making it for 500 people. That takes a different set of skills – those are my challenges. 

 

What’s the most challenging part of being a chef?

Work-life balance. Business is business – but I’m here all the time. It’s, “How do I go to the baseball game or the play on a Friday night?”

 

And your favorite part?

Learning through trial and error or watching someone else show me something I’d never thought of. If a cook shows me something new, it’s like, “Oh, I never thought of doing it that way!” That’s very cool to me. 

 

Tell us about your television career.

I got my first opportunity in the early 90s when Food Network started. At the time, I was kind of anti-entertainment. I thought it was disingenuous. I’m not knocking it because they seem to be doing just fine!

I did a couple of shows. One was Ready, Set, Cook. It looks fun and easy, but it’s a grind. I did Iron Chef America in 2000; It’s a hoot to watch – it felt more like WWE than a cooking show. I’ve done Beat Bobby Flay, Top Chef Masters, Guy’s Grocery Games, Great Chefs of the World on the Discovery channel, stuff about Vegas and the dining scene. I enjoy it now, as long as it’s got a teaching and learning component.

 

Speaking of entertainment, have you dined with any celebrities?

I sat at a private dining table with Michael Jackson (and Steve Wynn). He had his feet up on the table and introduced himself as Michael. He was the biggest celeb. I used to hang out with Robin Leach. It wasn’t because they came to me, it’s because Wynn knew everybody! We had a chef’s table, so there were a lot of close interactions with famous people. 

 

Do you think your kids will follow in your footsteps?

Frankly, I hope not. It takes a tremendous amount of work and time, and this business is changing so quickly that I think a lot of the romance is slowly squeaking out of it. My son is like a math whiz; he should do something with numbers. My daughter wants to be a pop star. I want them to follow their dreams.

 

What’s your motto for when the restaurant gets crazy?

“Hurry slowly.” In your mind, you’re moving a mile a minute, but you’re trying to be very methodical in what you’re doing. Sometimes it looks like you’re lackadaisical, but no - just pacing my moves. It takes discipline, and if you start going crazy, everyone will follow soon after. I had to scale back quite a bit, but as you hone your skills, people will follow suit.

 

What’s next for Chef Stratta?

Hopefully, Campo part two! Right now, we’re focused on the task at hand, focused on the viability for number two, which has more to do than with people just loving the pizza, you know? Business, partners, finance; how do you make it happen, etc. I work with great people, though. They’ve got my back. We love this community too, and we’re so happy to be here!