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.

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Grazie mille!

Friday, April 13, 2012

How To Write An Effective Restaurant Review

I realized the other day that I have expended a lot of virtual ink slamming bad restaurant reviews on the Internet, but I haven't put forth much effort in explaining how to write a good review. In this instance, I am not speaking of the content of the review being good or bad, but rather of the structure of the review itself.

Too many would-be reviewers take to the blogosphere and write things like, “This place rocks!” or “This place sucks!” These aren't reviews, they're ejaculations. (Look it up. It doesn't always mean what you think it does.) In fact, most of the “reviews” that appear on a plethora of increasingly popular social media sites aren't really reviews at all; they are merely comments. “I recommend Restaurant X. The food is really good” is a nice statement, but it's hardly a review.

There are rules and procedures involved in writing a proper review. You don't have to go on for pages and pages – as I sometimes do – but you do have to cover the basics.

In order to be useful, a review must be objective. When warranted, it's okay to be effusive with your praise, but it's equally important to be constructive with your criticism. “Reviews” that do nothing more than blatantly trash a business are pretty transparent. Most people can detect an ax being ground and will ignore overly and overtly negative pieces.

Rule number one in writing an effective review is to know your subject. I write about Italian food. I keep my mouth shut on other cuisines because I don't know enough about them. Therefore, I would not breeze into a Thai restaurant, order a dish about which I knew nothing, and then baldly proclaim, “This place has terrible food.”

In the same vein, be specific in your commentary. Don't make blanket statements like, “this place has bad food” or “this place has good food” until you've had a representative sampling of the menu. Ever watch any of those “restaurant rescue” shows like “Kitchen Nightmares” or “Restaurant: Impossible?” Notice that Gordon Ramsay and Robert Irvine order several dishes off the menu before they declare the food delicious or unfit to eat. (Usually the latter.) You may say that a particular dish is good or bad, but you can't praise or lambast all the food on a fifty-item menu based on the one thing you ordered.

When talking about the food you ate, don't just say “it was good” or “it was bad.” Why was it good or bad? Was it cooked properly? Was the temperature what it was supposed to be. Cold soup and a hot salad are good reasons to complain. And when it comes to discussing flavors and textures and such, if you don't have the palate to back up your opinions, shut up. There's nothing more annoying or pretentious than somebody who lets Chef Mike – as in microwave – do all the cooking at home, then goes out to a restaurant and suddenly becomes an expert on taste and texture and seasoning. Unless you really know what you're talking about, stick to the basics – too salty, too spicy, too sweet, etc. Don't over analyze. “The spaghetti was cold and a little overcooked and the sauce was too sweet for my taste” is a good, concise statement. No need to load up on adjectives and metaphors.

Talk about prices. Be specific. Generalities like, “this place is too expensive” are useless. You may consider a ten-dollar entree to be too expensive. I may not. Quote a specific price for the specific dish you purchased and include a price range for other offerings on the menu. “I paid $14 for my entree. Other entrees ranged from $12 to $18.” Let the reader decide whether or not the place is too expensive.

Discuss value. How were portions in relation to the prices? And was the quality equal to the cost? Again, know what you're talking about. Don't mouth off and say something was “canned” or “boxed” or “cheap” unless you can back it up. If necessary, qualify your statement. “I thought the sauce tasted canned” is a much safer declaration than “the sauce was canned.”

There's more to a restaurant than its food. Talk about those other things that affect your dining experience. Was the hostess friendly or surly? Was the waiter or waitress efficient and attentive or did they slop water on your table and otherwise ignore you? If there was music, was it too loud or out of character with the surroundings? Nothing goes with a nice Italian meal like a little Def Leppard played at earsplitting levels. How about the lighting? Did you need to keep your sunglasses on or were you required to use a flashlight in order to read the menu?

Pay attention to other details. Were you there for lunch or for dinner? Was the place crowded or empty. These things are important because they affect the overall service.

Some social media sites cover the nuts and bolts so you don't have to. But it's not a bad idea to note them just in case. Where is the restaurant located and what is the address? What are the hours of operation? Do you need reservations? What's the phone number? What constitutes appropriate dress? Is it a good “date” place or is it “family friendly?” How's the parking? Do they have a website?

As to the writing itself, first and foremost, use good grammar and spelling. People really do judge you by the way you speak and write. If you come across on paper as uneducated, your review is weightless. If you can't spell, punctuate, and form complete coherent sentences, why should I pay any attention to what you say?

It's okay to inject a little personality into your review. Be funny, be sarcastic, but above all, be intelligent. And don't be vulgar. Don't say, “the waitress was a bitch” even if she was. Don't say, “the food sucks” even if it does. When you make the statement, "this tastes like s**t," the first question that comes to my mind is "How does he know what s**t tastes like?" And “text speak” should be reserved for texting with your friends. “You” is never expressed as “U”. “R” is not an appropriate substitute for “are.” Such may be acceptable among your peers, but posting to the Internet opens you up to a wide audience. You may think it's sick to LOL with your peeps, but most of your readers will just think you're immature.

Despite the fact that I frequently criticize them, I can see the potential value in social media review sites. But as most of them stand now, they are of little merit due to the questionable caliber of their content. More effective reviews from better informed reviewers will go a long way toward increasing their viability.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

UK Pizza Hut's "Hot-Dog Stuffed-Crust" Further Adulterates Pizza

Once upon a time, nobody but Italians knew about pizza. Maybe it should have stayed that way.

Since its culinary “coming out” in the post-WWII years, the traditional Neapolitan pizza – a thin-crusted delight with a light topping of tomato sauce and cheese – has been adulterated by every culture that has touched it to the point where nowadays the word “pizza” is synonymous with “garbage pile.”

Gennaro Lombardi brought a simple pie to America in 1905, and the “improvements” and “innovations” began almost immediately. Gennaro himself made the first “improvements” out of necessity; rather than constructing his pizzas – actually, pizze if you want to be Italian about it – in the old-world way, he had to adapt to the ingredients available to him. New York was not noted for its roaming herds of water-buffalo, so the traditional mozzarella di bufala had to be replaced by a fior di latte, a cow's milk cheese that America has come to call “mozzarella.”

Then came the polluters and blasphemers, starting with Texas-athlete-turned-Chicago-salesman Ike Sewell who arbitrarily decided that pizza needed to be Texas-sized, so he proceeded to throw enormous proportions of traditional pizza ingredients into a casserole. He called it “Chicago Deep Dish Pizza.”

A bunch of California guys like Wolfgang Puck and California Pizza Kitchen founders Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax further “innovated” pizza by throwing anything remotely edible onto a pizza crust.

Of course, you have to give a lot of credit to a little venture started by a couple of brothers out in Kansas. When it comes to “garbage pizza,” Pizza Hut is the most egregious “innovator” of them all. “Let's see how much meat we can put on a 'meat lover's'.” “We'll denude a garden and call it a 'Supreme'.” “There's no such thing as 'too much cheese'.” Extra cheese! Extra meat! Extra vegetables! Extra! Extra! Extra! Obesity epidemic? Perish the thought!

And now comes the UK branch of Pizza Hut with a new wretched excess; the “Hot-Dog Stuffed-Crust Pizza.” Uh-huh, that's right. Some brainiac in the R&D department figured that wrapping a hot dog in pizza dough was a good thing. And if you're making “pigs-in-a-blanket,” it is. Not so much, though, when it comes to pizza. And they'll even throw in a FREE mustard drizzle! Woo-hoo! Mustard on pizza! Now there's innovation that would make Gennaro Lombardi weep! Or spin in his grave.

Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don't they make cheese-stuffed hot-dogs? Try this one out, Pizza Hut; you take the cheese-stuffed crust you already offer and stuff it with a cheese-stuffed hot-dog! Then you do a special offer with a meat-lover's variety with extra cheese! Every cardiologist on the planet would be buying stock in your company!

It all makes one little Italian immigrant with some flatbread, some tomatoes, and a little cheese, all wrapped in a paper bundle tied with string look somehow lonely and forlorn, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mario Batali's Timpano di Maccheroni A Kitchen Nightmare

Whether on TV or in person, I love to watch Mario Batali cook. He's incredibly personable and has a great rapport with his audience. He's knowledgeable and passionate and you learn a lot just watching him regardless of whether you ever intend to prepare any of the sometimes exotic and arcane dishes he demonstrates.

Well, I caught Mario's act on ABC's The Chew not long ago on a day when he was preparing a Timpano di Maccheroni. An impressive stuffed pasta pie, he billed it as a great dish for parties and celebrations. He also touted how very easy the dish was to prepare. Perfect, I thought, for an upcoming event I'm supposed to cater.

But first, there's Easter. A big family food holiday and an opportunity to guinea pig a new recipe. I'll wow family and friends with a timpano before I try it out on a client. Only, I was the one who got “wowed.” As in, “Wow! Was that una grande dolore in culo!” (That's “a big pain in the ass” for those of you who are Italian-challenged.)

See, the thing is, it's easy for Mario to say something is “easy” because he has a huge team of prep cooks working behind the scenes to make it look easy. But when it's just you and your long-suffering spouse, it's a whole 'nuther story. Especially if you're trying to turn out cheesecake and various other side items at the same time. Easy-schmeezy!

To be somewhat fair to Mario, the actual assembly of the dish is easy. It's ten-minute easy. BUT......

Let me describe this kitchen nightmare. You make a crust that's somewhere between pasta and pastry. You lay said crust in a big metal bowl that's been buttered and breadcrumbed so that the edges overlap the rim of the bowl. Then you add a layer of rigatoni that's been cooked in a besciamella sauce and to which a little ham or prosciutto has been added. Top that with some freshly-grated parmigiano-reggiano. Add a layer of meatballs that have been cooked in a tomato sauce. Top that with more cheese. Then you add a layer of a nice ragu, or meat sauce. Fold the “flaps” of dough over the whole thing, cover with foil and bake. Easy!!

And if I would have had somebody pre-make my crust, pre-cook my pasta, pre-make my white sauce, my red sauce, my meat sauce, and my meatballs so that all I had to do was dance around on my little black Crocs – mine are black, not orange – putting it all together, why, I'd be a happy camper, too!

Of course, if I were one of those kind of cooks, I would have used the pie dough that comes in little rolls in the dairy case and combined it with some jarred sauces and frozen meatballs. That, also, would have been pretty easy.

But, no-o-o-o. I spent hours making all the sauces from scratch. I even cut up and ground the meat that went into the ragu and the meatballs. And the dough was scratch-made, too. And then there was the time it took to grate piles of cheese and the time to cook the pasta and cutting up the prosciutto and a dozen other “little” things that all had to be done before the final “easy” assembly and baking, which, by the way, took an hour-and-a-half.

My wife has threatened to hurt me if I ever again utter “easy” and “Batali” in the same sentence.

And then there's the recipe issue. I went to The Chew's website for the recipe. I don't know who wrote it, but it's whacked.

First, there's the dough. The recipe says you can hydrate 2 ½ cups of flour with a teaspoon of water. You can't. My wife made the dough while I was working on sauces and she kept adding and adding water to achieve the “lumpy mass” the recipe called for before kneading and resting the dough. And things got worse instead of better after the dough rested. Worse to the point where we almost remade the dough. We finally got it to work, but only by following our experience and instincts, not by following the recipe.

The recipe was full of weird instructions. For instance, they wanted me to make the ragu, or meat sauce, by cooking the meat in tomato sauce for three hours and then removing the meat. Huh?

And the ingredient proportions were equally ridiculous. The recipe called for two pounds of rigatoni. The biggest metal mixing bowl in my kitchen measures 12-inches across the top. I struggled to get a little more than half of the cooked pasta into that bowl. I do have a small metal washtub that probably would have worked, but it wouldn't fit in my oven.

Ultimately, the dish was – as most Batali dishes are – a triumph. When we finally got the cursed thing put together and baked, we upended it onto a serving platter, lightly thumped the bowl, lifted it and revealed an absolutely perfect golden dome of pasta and meat-filled deliciousness that awed our guests into numerous expressions of admiration.

And we vowed to never make it least not according to that recipe.

Timpano di Maccheroni is a great concept and one of these days I'll write out the recipe in a way that won't leave you cursing, mumbling, and panting when you try to make it. In the meantime, I hope the guests at my upcoming event won't mind lasagne.