The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Trouble With Urbanspoon and Other "Review" Sites

I say it right up front on my blog's homepage: “I'm entitled to my opinion – and so are you.”

That's supposed to be funny, but sometimes it's not. Such is the case when someone's opinion is so patently uninformed and deliberately malicious as to be hurtful or detrimental to others. And that's what happens all too frequently on social networking “review” sites like Urbanspoon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and the like.

Everybody has a right to their opinion. That goes without saying. What needs to be said, however, is whether or not the right exists to disseminate uneducated, fatuous, baseless opinions in a widely-read public forum upon which other people depend to determine a course of action.

The difference between a “professional” critic and a “citizen” critic is largely a matter of experience and education. Most people who write critques for a living have some modicum of training that enables them to do so. Not just training as wordsmiths, but trained eyes, or trained palates or some other skill or quality that sets them apart from the “average” viewer, diner, etc. who simply knows what he or she likes and doesn't like. Not that all pros are always right and all amateurs are always wrong, but in the final analysis, who are you going to trust to remove your appendix – a doctor or your neighbor's brother-in-law who is employed as a hospital janitor? Both work in the medical field, after all.

There are a lot of "Average Joes" that log on to these sites and make an honest attempt at rendering an objective opinion. But there are just as many disingenuous morons seeking their fifteen seconds of fame by having their names in print on something.

Let me illustrate my point with a specific instance. I don't often do this. In fact, I don't think I've ever directly addressed a specific single review on an Internet site. But this one is egregious enough that I have to say something about it.

There is a little Italian restaurant in a place called King, a tiny North Carolina town on the edge of the Triad communities of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point. Appropriately, it's named “Little Italy.” Appropriate because A.) it's a fairly small establishment, and B.) it's run by an Italian family. Not an Italian-American family that's been in the United States for three or four generations. No. These folks are fresh from Monte di Procida, a little town near Naples. They have names like Giuseppe, Salvatore, Mimmo, and Luigi. They actually own four properties in the area; in King, Burlington, Welcome, and Rural Hall, with Rural Hall being the original location, established in 1999. And they've all been in the restaurant business for a long time before that, having opened other Italian eateries before starting the “Little Italy” brand. So is it safe to say they know something about Italian food? I would think so.

Now along comes an Urbanspoon contributor, who, under the headline “Do not waste your time or money” writes: “This is absolutely the worst Italian food I have ever had in my life. It was nothing but over priced boxed mixes with some chewy, obviously frozen bagged seafood on top. It literally disgusted me. If you value your hard earned money and your stomach I would keep on driving right past this place.”

It is my educated and informed opinion that this individual is a palate-numbed idiot. I won't bother addressing her writing style except to say that one shouldn't mix pronouns in the same sentence – “If you value …..I would keep on driving....” That aside, may I ask of this “critic” have you ever eaten Italian food that didn't come from a boxed mix? Or a can with Chef Boyardee's picture on it? Is Olive Garden your idea of high Italian cusine? Or are you, perhaps, a disgruntled former employee or a friend or employee of a competitor? That, unfortunately, is all too common on these sites. There must be something behind this alleged “review,” because on its face it is scurillous drivel.

I came across this doggerel while researching the King location of “Little Italy.” Having previously reviewed – and enjoyed – another of the Looz family's restaurants, I wanted to sample the wares at a different location. While I don't generally make my decisions based upon input from social networking sites, I do occasionally consult them. If I find a preponderance of negativity, I may take it into account. If everybody cites bad service, or everybody lambasts a particular dish, or everybody says a place is dirty, I may give the aggregate opinions some weight.

But in this case, no. This was one of two published “reviews.” The other “review” was wildly positive. And according to Urbanspoon's stats, eighty-seven percent of sixty-six people “liked” the place. So about fifty-seven out of sixty-six people were not “literally disgusted” by Little Italy's food. Pretty good numbers. And, by the way, even though I didn't “vote,” I definitely “like” the place.

I don't have pretensions of chefdom, but I do have a studied background on the subject of Italian food and I have cooked Italian food both professionally and as a home cook for many years. I do know Italian food and that's how I know this “reviewer” is pazza. Anybody with two active taste buds should be able to tell that Little Italy's food is the real deal. But before I published a rebuttal, I wanted to make absolutely sure that there was no credence or credibility to these dubious claims. I didn't want to rely solely on my palate, so I contacted the owner of Little Italy in King and asked to observe his kitchen. After I read the “review” to him and explained what a boxed mix was – he didn't understand the reference – he agreed to let me watch his food prep.

Early next morning, I walked through the back door with all the employees and watched as preparations for the day's service began. All was exactly as my palate had already determined. There were no boxes in this kitchen. Everything was as good Italian food should be; high-quality fresh ingredients simply and traditionally prepared from old-world family recipes. Do they use canned tomatoes in their sauces? Of course they do! Everybody uses canned tomatoes in sauces. Mario Batali uses canned tomatoes in his sauces. But I saw the cans, people. San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. No low-quality cheap food-service brands. And I watched the man chop the onions and the garlic and I watched the man add the tomatoes to the freshly chopped aromatics and I watched the man add the other herbs and seasonings to the sauce. Boxed mixes indeed!

I went through the walk-in, lady. I saw shelves stocked with quality fresh ingredients. The only boxes in there were the ones that contained the fresh produce.

I watched fifty pounds of flour being dumped into the Hobart along with yeast, sugar, salt, water and a little oil to form fresh pizza dough. In fact, I even made a few dough balls myself. Boxed mixes!

I saw loaves of freshly baked bread being sliced to fill baskets and for bruschetta for which I also watched an employee chopping fresh tomatoes.

And, yes, I saw frozen shrimp and scallops. I've eaten in coastal restaurants in the Carolinas. One place was right on the docks and I saw the day's catch being carried right into the kitchen. The only body of water near King is the Ararat River, not noted for its fine shrimp. So of course the shrimp were frozen. Find me an average inland restaurant where they're not. But these are high-quality fresh-frozen shrimp, cleaned, deveined, and cooked to order on the premises. And the scallops were on a par with any I've purchased at the “fresh” seafood counter of my local market. I was taken into the office and shown the invoice. I know where the guy's getting his seafood and how much he's paying for it. Frozen bagged seafood? Palate-numbed idiot.

They offered to let me watch them make salad dressing from scratch, but I'd seen enough. I promised I'd return for dinner, and I did. And, yes, I paid for it. Nobody gave me anything for writing this piece.

I'm writing it solely because somebody sorely wronged this fine little restaurant with an undeserved rant that had no basis in fact. I can't even call it an opinion. Opinion usually requires thought and this blatant attempt to damage somebody's business was completely thoughtless.

My wife, our friends, and I have sampled a variety of dishes, from rib-eye to pizza, and we have found nothing but excellent food, exceptionally well prepared and served by an extremely friendly, personable waitstaff in a refreshingly clean and enjoyable atmosphere.

So here's my rebuttal: Spend your time. Spend your money. This is absolutely some of the best Italian food I have ever had in my life. It is nothing but high-quality, fresh ingredients deliciously prepared in a wonderful Italian family tradition. It literally delights me. If you value your hard-earned money and your stomach, you'll drive directly to this place, and you'll do it often.

The Little Italy in King is located at 612 S. Main Street. They're open daily for lunch and dinner. Call 'em at (336) 985-5428. There's adequate parking, dress is casual, and reservations are not required.

I'm not saying that Urbanspoon and other social networking sites don't serve a purpose. But it is imperative when using them as a resource to do so with a large grain of salt. Read between the lines, look for patterns, examine motives, and try whenever possible to compare “average Joe” commentaries with those of more seasoned and established reviewers. You really don't want to chance missing out on wonderful little places like Little Italy just because somebody with an axe to grind didn't “like” it.

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