The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Battling Conflict at the Restaurant

Posted on | December 17, 2009 | Written by Frank Sansotta | 10 Comments

I grew up around food; I grew up around amazing food, actually. My dad is an Italian-born chef and I’m now a trained chef. My expectations are usually high when it comes to food, and they’re even higher when it comes to white tablecloth restaurants. However high my expectations, I’ve come to realize that living in Westchester has made me understand that some restaurants are just average. Still, I believe in the conviction that if you charge $35 for entrees and serve your guests on white tablecloths, then it is your obligation to bring it!

Recently, my girlfriend Melissa and I went to a local Italian restaurant (for reasons soon to become clear, I’m opting against naming it). We’d been there a few times previously and enjoyed the food. The owner is a nice guy who’s really into wine. Naturally, he and I get along.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a nicely dressed hostess and a suited gentleman. We were seated right away, and our jackets were removed by the host and manager.  We were presented menus by the server, and the manager followed with a wine list. The list was 100% Italian, a big plus for me because there’s nothing that bothers me more than going to an Italian restaurant that offers more Californian than Italian wines. The owner and I decided on a 1997 Giacomo Borgogno Barbaresco, an absolute steal at $50 a bottle. I was happy. Everything seemed to be going so well.

When dining at restaurants of this caliber, I usually don’t like to order; I generally leave it in the hands of the manager or server. This time was no different for me, and I told the manager, whose judgment is usually spot on, to order for my girlfriend and me.

The first course was Mozzarella di buffalo with roasted peppers and an eighty-year-old balsamic vinegar. This was fantastic—simple but fresh. The mozzarella was actually buffalo and the peppers actually roasted in house; the eighty-year-old balsamic was a nice touch. Nothing makes me angrier than going to a restaurant, ordering Mozzaralla di buffalo, and discovering that they’re calling Polly-O string cheese Mozzarella di buffalo! I was pleased to see the genuine article.

The second course was also wonderful: Prosciutto di San Daniele with baby eggplant salad. The Prosciutto was sliced thin and fresh. The eggplant was perfectly cooked with a little crunch to it. I love eggplant, though if it’s mushy, we have a problem. This eggplant was delightful in every respect.

I’m happy so far. The Barbaresco is starting to open up. The nose is beautiful. Bright rose petals and fall leaves start to blossom in the glass. The wine is perfectly balanced with a slightly sweet note of balsamic. Melissa and I are smiling; it’s a wonderful food and wine synergy so far.

The third course was risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. And that was when the bombshell dropped.

As the waiter crossed the room with the risotto in his hand, I could see that the dish didn’t look right.   Closer, closer he walked, and my apprehension grew. The waiter approached the table. I looked around in anticipation for the manager, hoping he would intercept the dishes and send them back to the kitchen. He was not to be found. Melissa loves risotto and looked at me with dismay. Disappointment showed on her face.

The “risotto” was not risotto. It wasn’t that gloriously relaxed ooze of Carnaroli, wafting truffle and glowing with a sheen of butter. Instead it looked like nothing as much as Uncle Ben’s cooked in a risotto style. I almost fell off my seat! I felt embarrassed, conflicted and anguished. Should I say something? Should I send it back? I didn’t want to make the owner feel bad or make a scene in this small restaurant. Everything had been going so well. And now… this plate of faux risotto. I was gobsmacked.

Melissa convinced me to eat it, and it actually tasted good for commercial boxed rice, though eating the dish did nothing to convince me that what was on the plate before me had any connection to risotto other than its name.  The rest of the meal was a blur to me. I couldn’t get over the risotto catastrophe. I found myself looking around the restaurant seeing if anyone else ordered the faux risotto dish. There was a part of me that wanted to walk over to the table in the corner and tell them they were eating a box of Uncle Ben’s. Did they know too? I kept trying to make eye contact with them. The entire meal had become a punch-line to a really bad foodie joke.

The problem was that I liked the restaurant. I liked the manager. In fact, I still like both. I keep on wondering, should I have told him of this kitchen disaster? Is it possible he wasn’t aware? Or is it possible that even he thought that what the chef had sent out that night was actually risotto? Part of me cannot fathom the idea that a chef worthy of a salt grain of integrity could send a dish out like that, and another part of me can’t fathom the idea that a chef in an Italian restaurant would call that dish “risotto.” And then one last part of me still can’t get over the fact that they charged me $25 for the boxed rice disaster—and that I paid it.

Still conflicted, I wonder, what would you do? Would you go back? What do you do when you have a seriously mixed restaurant experience at a place you genuinely, and generally, like?


10 Responses to “Battling Conflict at the Restaurant”

  1. Anthony Lamonaca
    December 17th, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Personally I go back because I know that everyone has an off night from Jeter to Jefferson [Thomas that is]. I also feel it is my absolute duty to alert the manager to the fact that dish is sub par. If I like him/the restaurant I owe it to them in order to correct the faults in the dish or to alert me that both he and the chef feel this is the proper presentation. If they feel this is correct than I order for myself next time or stay home with my arborio or carnaroli and stir away.
    Francesco, you should also know that buffalo can never make mozzarella but that bufala mozzarella outside Capaccio is sublime.

    Salute’, nice job and keep up the interesting writing.

  2. Christy A. Canterbury
    December 17th, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    I vote for a return trip. When you ask the manager to order for you, specifically mention you’d rather not have risotto again. You’re likely to be asked why (and if not, you can always offer the reason.) It’s the perfect moment for the restaurant to regain your faith…or for you to reveal their identity to save the rest of us!

  3. Christy A. Canterbury
    December 17th, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    By the way, though I am not a risotto fan, I absolutely love your passionate description of this dish: “It wasn’t that gloriously relaxed ooze of Carnaroli, wafting truffle and glowing with a sheen of butter.”

  4. Keith Hickson
    December 17th, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    I agree with Mr. Lamonaca. Everyone is entitled to a bad day so if you present your issues like a gentleman then I think the manager would appreciate the feedback.

  5. Frank Sansotta
    December 17th, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    Have you ever been in a similar situation?

  6. Ralphie Incognito
    December 18th, 2009 @ 12:33 pm


    You should’ve told the manager, “in terms of creativity, not creative at all”

  7. Melissa
    December 18th, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    This reminds me of the last time I sent back corked wine. Of course, the scenario is different — the wine director/somm doesn’t make the wine, but a slip of due diligence to check wine served by the glass should be as rigorous as wine opened by the bottle. The said restaurant was recently named the best new resto in NYC and we started with two glasses of Prosecco. Corked as all out. Clearly, I alerted our somm and he gracefully (and apologetically) removed our tainted wine. We ordered two fresh delicious glasses of the same Prosecco and moved onto a bottle of Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschal 2007. The rest of the evening was error free and the mishap retreated from our thoughts. And I attribute this to having said something instead of unhappily living through it. Bad wine or food is never worth it. I think feedback is definitely key.

  8. Frank Sansotta
    December 18th, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    I’m thinking of giving him a call? or should I just mention it casually to him the next time at the restaurant???

  9. Frank Sansotta
    December 18th, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    Hey Ralphie do you have a restaurant background?

  10. Natasha
    December 18th, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Though I didn’t see the dish myself, it sounds to me like the chef just had a bad day. Like you, I am also a trained chef … so I know how easy it is to turn away from the stove for a few minutes, only to find a pot of rice pilaf sitting where you left your risotto! But seriously, it could have been a busy night, or he could have been short-staffed – any number of things could have happened in the kitchen to prevent a cook from diligently stirring the rice into creamy perfection. Or maybe you’re used to the carnaroli variety, and perhaps this chef prefers to cook his risotto with vialone nano … who can say?

    In other words, I think if you “genuinely” like the place, then one plate of not-bad-tasting rice shouldn’t be enough to keep you from ever going back. Give the place another shot!

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