“I’ll meet you any time you want in our Italian restaurant…”

by Katie Pizzuto on July 26, 2010

in Italian Food,Restaurants

Over all, I’m not one who tends to frequent Italian restaurants that haven’t been personally recommended by someone that knows my lack of enthusiasm towards them…especially those that cater towards the American “bastardization” of Italian dishes…and especially those in New Jersey. As luck (or lack thereof) would have it, I ate at two last week, and my experiences at both of them made for a classic case of Angels vs. Demons—of Italian restaurants. The fact that one of these restaurants committed a clusterfuck of transgressions would normally have me reminding you just how many fools I’m willing to suffer for your entertainment, but the truth of that matter is that I laughed nearly all the way home, wondering just how long it would be before these guys showed up on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.

I’m bound to get flack for this, but I seriously seldom bother with the majority of Italian restaurants in my state. I know there are a few good ones (because they are the ones that get my business) but most of them are just a regurgitation of what Americans have come to expect: chicken, eggplant or just about anything else “parmigiana”, meatballs as dense as Paris Hilton, penne vodka, and carbonaras and alfredos drenched in cream. But when we got together for a girls’ night out last week, we were supposed to be headed for a German restaurant in Hawthorne, so overcooked pasta and undercooked risotto were the last thing on my mind. That quickly changed when we took one look at the place. The consensus at that point became, “screw this place, what else is nearby and how stiff are their drinks?” A few suggestions were tossed around but we settled on a new Italian joint called Vivi that had just recently opened up a couple of blocks up. My sister-in-law and I were pretty hesitant about the place, but it was local and reasonably priced. The fact that it said “creative cuisine” on its awning was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good sign…it was the sign, apparently, of a “Demon” Italian restaurant.

After seven of us lovely ladies sat at a round table in the corner, our waiter—a 60-something, Italian-American divorcee that could easily have scooped up a roll on The Sopranos—began flirting with a couple of us while he opened our wines. I liken this overt flirtation with women approximately half his age to the nausea that overcomes you when you read in the backseat of a car. After a few humoring giggles he was gone, tossing about in a manic rush despite the fact that there weren’t that many full tables. Every other menu item we asked about, by the way, was either “unbelievable, amazing or melted in your mouth.” By the time he came back to take our order, the din of 7 hungry ladies was completely outdone by his idiot son/maître d’ who stood at the front desk, on the phone, yelling at whoever was on the other end that he “paid the fuckin’ bank” and that he was gonna “fuckin’ smoke him.” Ahh, lovely dinner banter.

Then there was the food. The lump-crab meat appetizer that we ordered supposedly came served on top of mango. What it actually came served on top of were mango peel slices. The meal I wanted to order—shrimp and wild mushrooms over spaghetti—was a no-go because they were out of shrimp. “Can you just replace the shrimp with scallops or such?” I asked. No way…they were out of scallops, too. I asked how exactly they were able to make the dinner special that consisted of a crépe stuffed with shrimp, fish, etc. if they were out of shrimp, and was told that those were made “ahead of time.” Like an asshole, I ordered the special. What I got wasn’t a crépe, but a burrito-like, thick tortilla, and it wasn’t stuffed with shrimp and fish, it was stuffed with a few little chunks of shrimp and a few tiny shards of fish, and mostly stuffed with what I’m guessing was a mixture of bread crumbs and God knows what else. While we ate, the maître d’s cell phone rang at the front desk and that prompted another slew of threats that weren’t even remotely mumbled under breath, spewed instead with a thick Italian accent. Dessert, by the time we got to it, consisted of typical options like tartufo, spumoni, cannoli, and chocolate mousse cake. The cannoli, the life-threatening son actually admitted, wasn’t much good and they were out of the chocolate mousse cake (big surprise). So a couple of the girls ordered some almond-flavored cake while one of the busboys gallantly returned from the liquor store with a huge jug of Gallo wine and poured the waiter and son a brim-full glass so the son could then proceed to sit with a friend at the table next to us and explain to said friend how he “swears on his mother” (why is it always the mother?!) that he’s gonna “smoke this guy.” The cake, by the way, was decent.

It was only a couple of days later that my husband and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice night out (with the kid) at a local, yet remote Italian restaurant called Momento. Quite the antithesis of Vivi, I wasn’t greeted by a horny Italian divorcee…I was greeted by a doting Albanian maître d’ who gently kissed my hand and showed us our seat. There were no menacing threats made over a phone line, no swearing, and no gilding of the menu items. Instead we had a gregarious waiter who entertained us with a couple of little-known facts about the history of various alcoholic beverages and yet knew instinctively when to leave us alone. There was no trace of Amercanized Italian food on the menu, save perhaps for the lobster ravioli. The carpaccio I ordered was delicious and my shrimp and wild mushroom risotto (damned if I wasn’t gonna finally get my shrimp and mushrooms) was perfectly cooked, with enormous chunks of shrimp and scallops tossed throughout. My son’s lamb chops (9 small ones) were a beautiful medium-rare, and I’d gladly tell you about my husband’s Bolognese were it not for the fact that I was so wrapped up in my meal that I wasn’t even courteous enough to ask how his was. An empty plate, however, sufficed for an answer.

When we told the waiter we had to leave without dessert or coffee because our son wasn’t feeling well, we weren’t given dirty looks—we were given sympathetic ones, with an offer to return soon for a “full” meal. The waiter, busboy and maître d’ were all the kind of people you felt like hugging on the way out after you paid your bill. You felt as if they actually enjoyed your company and wanted you to return not so much for your patronage but merely for your presence. They didn’t blatantly work at schmoozing for a tip, and that’s precisely why they earned a good one. I’ll gladly return to Momento a hundred times over before I’d even remotely consider stepping foot inside Vivi again.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Linsey July 26, 2010

Seriously enjoyed reading this review, especially the part with italian food being bastardized to suit american tastes – advises you not to try british italian you would freak even more lol.

On a personal note I cant stand waiters that are constantly constantly hovering waiting asking etc etc – winds me up and i cant enjoy my meal … pls keep a healthy distance and only check everything is ok a couple of times.

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2 Katie Pizzuto July 26, 2010

Agree, Linsey….there’s a fine line between being attentive and being overbearing. Then again, if someone’s in a pissy mood because they’re busy threatening death to someone, I’m just fine if they ignore me :)

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3 Linsey July 26, 2010

I sat in an outside cafe a month ago – these teenage waiters spent the whole time moving back and forth between the tables trying to spot someone to serve, talking just behind our backs and asking again and again if we needed anything else … totally ruined the lunch for us to the extent that we told them to stop it.

In the end we had to make a complaint to the management because it was oppressive.

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4 Mark July 26, 2010

There’s an old Italian saying: you **** up once, you lose two teeth – Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano Sr.
Sounds like Viva has lost quite a few…and a few more Jersey diners…

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5 Katie Pizzuto July 26, 2010

Mark! You’re back! Funny story…the table seated next to us (about 4 people I think, that were already three sheets to the wind) asked that we let them know which dishes we thought were best because they “go there all the time” or something to that affect. I’m wondering if they realize now that none of us ever gave them an answer, and WHY that might be.

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6 Mark July 26, 2010

lol. The only thing missing from this tragic story is the squat bottle of chianti in a straw basket :-)

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7 Peter at Simply Beer July 26, 2010

DOH! thanks for this post, Katie! I love Jersey too, but I’m with you on this. Sounds like a nightmare, but funny as hell to read! Thanks for making my Monday morning!

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8 Katie Pizzuto July 26, 2010

Always here for your entertainment….just stay the HELL away from Vivi unless you’re a masochist. BTW, next time you brew a sour beer, I want a sample damn it!!!! :)

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9 Karen July 26, 2010

Katie – It was a pleasure sharing the meal with you, even if the meal itself wasn’t that pleasurable.
I perhaps should mention that when I got my Veal Da Vinci, I noticed it can with a steak knife… which is never a good sign with veal! As the knife predicted, the veal was stringy, but the “garnish / salad” that it was served with was tasty, and my dogs enjoyed the veal without the steak knife. =) Once again, it was fun to share such an interesting meal with you!

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10 Katie Pizzuto July 27, 2010

Definitely a good time despite the food/service, Karen! Veal with a steak knife?!? You’re right, definitely NOT a good sign….ever. Wish I’d know that one….would’ve woven it into the story! Thanks for sharing!!!!

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11 Debbie M July 26, 2010

I promise no Italian next time! That evening just supports the saying” you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.” The atmosphere was pleasing until the staff started to speak!

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12 Katie Pizzuto July 27, 2010

Yup, definitely a nicely designed interior, probably to make up for the people it housed!

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13 Don July 27, 2010

This actually reminds me of an episode of Kitchen Nightmares I watched about a similar restaurant in New York. It is hard to believe the careers certain people choose. Like an agoraphobic tour guide…

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14 Katie Pizzuto July 27, 2010

Hey, who told you it was ok to use multi-syllabic words on this blog?!? ;-)

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15 Linsey July 27, 2010

Kitchen Nightmares is great fun … we eventually get the American version shown here.

So many restaurants, so much refridgerated but rotten food… lol.

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16 Coupe 60 July 27, 2010

Is an agoraphobic tour guide someone that is afraid of soft wool sweaters?

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17 Coupe 60 July 27, 2010

Check that last comment…I was thinking of an Angoraphobic tour guide…my bad… :-)

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18 Carmine from Vivi July 27, 2010

you think you are a funny lady…but over here at Vivi, we are not amused Capice?…Luca Brasi was a funny guy too …but now he sleeps with the fishes…

You are a very pretty lady…BUT
I catch you listening in on any of my business again…and it won’t be pretty…
I catch you giving a shall we say less than stella review of my fine establishment again…and it won’t be pretty
Capice…

Please note the above note was fictional in nature and intended to be funny in nature and not to stereotype a fine culture. it does not represent any anti-Italian bias on the poster, but simply a lack of any real maturity. Please do not attempt to contact the authorities or fear for fair Katie’s well being…

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19 Katie Pizzuto July 27, 2010

Thank you for making me laugh my ass off, Lou.

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20 The Wine Commonsewer August 1, 2010

meatballs as dense as Paris Hilton

got dam that’s funny……..

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21 Katie Pizzuto August 2, 2010

Yeah, I really gotta find someone else to pick on because I realized after I wrote this that I picked on her once before when talking about Veuve Clicquot having no personality and comparing it to Paris Hilton.

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22 doris August 2, 2010

i heard the story firsthand, but this was quite entertaining to read.

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23 James August 3, 2010

I live literally a few blocks from this place. The people next to you go there all the time? It can’t have been open for more than a few weeks. A MONTH at most. If they “go there all the time,” they must never eat at home or anywhere else! I’ve never been, and from the sound of it, I don’t want to go. Another place nearby, Ossy’s, is a better alternative. It’s on Lincoln Ave.

The building used to house this pastry/coffee/ice cream type place. I never understood how they stayed in business with a place so huge. Obviously, they didn’t.

-James

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24 Katie Pizzuto August 3, 2010

Thanks for the heads up, James….if we’re ever back in Hawthorne, we’ll give Ossy’s a try. And yeah, that’s what those people next to us said, but who the hell knows….they may have been family or friends just making the place seem good enough to go to a lot! Do yourself a HUGE favor and don’t bother: the food doesn’t make up for the service, nor did the service make up for the food. I realize restaurants experience growing pains when they first open, but that doesn’t excuse their behavior.

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25 SS Chris September 17, 2010

Katie, You are always both entertaining and hysterical. When is the book going to be published? I will be first in line.

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26 Katie Pizzuto September 18, 2010

Many thanks, Chris…it’s in the works!

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27 al September 26, 2010

Carmine from Vivi!!!!! you should be a shame of your self, how could you talk to people with that tone, who criticize your restaurant , go and do some thing about your food and service. Shame on you!

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28 Carmine from Vivi September 27, 2010

Al, apologies for not being clearer. The post from Carmine was completely made up fiction. I don’t even know if there is a Carmine at Vivi’s….Sorry that my attempt at sarcasm was misread.

Again from the bottom of my original post:

Please note the above note was fictional in nature and intended to be funny in nature and not to stereotype a fine culture. it does not represent any anti-Italian bias on the poster, but simply a lack of any real maturity. Please do not attempt to contact the authorities or fear for fair Katie’s well being…

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