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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Thursday, September 18, 2014

California Italian Restaurant Takes On Yelp

Seeking One-Star Reviews for “The Worst Restaurant in the San Francisco Area”

Let's hear it for Botto Bistro! Co-owners Davide Cerretini and Michele Massimo are determined to have “the worst restaurant in the San Francisco area.” And I hope they succeed.

The two Tuscan chefs are taking on Yelp, the giant social media site that gives small-minded, palate-
challenged, functionally illiterate, vengeful, hateful trolls the opportunity to vent their puerile spleen on hardworking restaurateurs with the noble intent of destroying their livelihoods.

Can you tell I don't think much of Yelp?

The site loftily pretends to be a pure democracy in which everyone has an equal voice. But there is one big drawback to democracy; one which our Founding Fathers foresaw when they established the United States as a democratic republic rather than as a true democracy. The flies in Yelp's democratic ointment are the same ones envisioned by Thomas Jefferson: idiots.

In the same way that the republican form of government is one in which the power of the people is vested in specially delegated representatives, so also is the world of professional criticism. Professional critics are people with appropriate education, training, and talent to whom the responsibility is given to express an informed opinion based upon those factors. That opinion, then, provides a useful tool to guide the common person toward or away from a particular restaurant, play, movie or whatever entity or function is being reviewed.

Yelp and its ilk bypass these qualified representatives by placing the power directly in the hands of any boob with a keyboard and an index finger, resulting not in true democracy, but rather in the worst form of anarchy. And it is an anarchy that, by its unbridled pernicious nature, can destroy the lives and livelihoods of restaurant owners, managers, cooks, servers, and others associated with the business.

“But everybody's entitled to an opinion,” rage the outraged. Yes. And you know what they say about opinions and certain anatomical features.

I fought back against a social media “review” once. It involved a charming little locally owned Italian restaurant operated by a lovely Italian family. And some moron with an obvious ax to grind savaged the place on social media. Her so-called “review” read: This is the absolutely 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.

Now, besides recognizing bad sentence structure when I see it, I also know a thing or two about Italian food. And I knew this woman was full of ….....misinformed ideas. So, after contacting the owners and setting up a tour of the kitchen, I wrote a rebuttal to her ignorant commentary. Everything on the menu was fresh and homemade. I watched it being prepared and even participated in preparing some of it. I had to explain to the perplexed owner what a “boxed mix” was. And, in a point of information for Miss Bitchy-Poo, most restaurants located hundreds of miles from the coast do rely on frozen seafood. It's the quality of the product and the way it's treated after it's thawed that makes the difference. And this little place did wonderful things with their great frozen seafood. The alleged “review” was nothing but a poorly crafted hatchet job designed to hurt the owners and their business. After taking it apart point by point, I summed up with: Spend your time and 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. So much for social media “reviews.”

Worse still than the inherent potential for abuse by the uneducated, ill-informed, or downright noxious is the frequently alleged practice on the part of Yelp itself of selling better “reviews” to advertisers. Indeed, the company's revenues edged into profitability for the first time in the second quarter of 2014 based largely on increased advertising by business owners. Many in the restaurant industry claim that their Yelp ratings go up concomitant with their paid advertising, a practice which, though recently deemed legal, Yelp vehemently denies.

Nonetheless, in order to test the system – and pretty much to game it – Botto Bistro is begging for bad reviews. One-star reviews. The hope is that they'll be deemed “bad” enough to completely disappear from Yelp's ratings radar. Then they can go back to doing what they do best; cooking Italian food. Cerretini says, “We have nothing to lose. Worst case, we go back to Italy and cook for mama.”

And people are getting into the game. One “reviewer” wrote, "My food arrived before I wanted it to come. It was too hot to eat. It brought back all kinds of terrible memories of eating in Italy." Another opined, “I have been here at least 20 times and it is still terrible."

Heck, I just might write a Yelp “review” of Botto Bistro myself. Never mind that I live on the other coast and have never been near the place. I have a keyboard and an index finger. Apparently that's all that's required to be a Yelper.

Botto Bistro is fighting fire with fire. The restaurant's own Yelp profile proclaims, “Bad Tuscan food, bad customer service and horrible attitude." And this reverse psychology strategy by Cerrentini and Massimo is brilliant. There is a peanut vendor in Columbia, SC that has long used the motto “Guaranteed Worst In Town.” The story goes that a farmer, one Julian D. Cromer, started selling fresh roasted peanuts out of his produce stand at the local Farmers Market. Although he roasted them fresh every morning, a competitor would yell out to his customers, "Don't buy those! Mine are the best! Cromer's are no good." Like the clever Italian chefs in San Francisco, Cromer agreed and posted his own slogan, "Guaranteed Worst in Town." Curious customers soon flocked to his stand to try "the worst" roasted peanuts in town, and they're still flocking to Cromer's nearly eighty years later. In fact, Cromer's has a four-and-a-half star rating on Yelp.

Cerrentini says he's getting a lot of support for his one-star campaign and I truly hope it's phenomenally successful. He's even offering discounts to patrons who participate in the “Hate Us On Yelp” gimmick. The results are creative and hilarious. Go read them for yourself. The challenge is in sorting out the fake “reviews” from the “real” ones. There's no difference. Comments like, “I have been a loyal customer here for decades, but... Last month I moved to Albuquerque. I just called in an order earlier last week and the f**king food just arrived 10 minutes ago! Seriously? Why the hell does it take days to ship an order from Richmond to ABQ.” They are absolutely priceless! The fakes are just as stupid, insipid, and banal as the real Yelp “reviews.”

“Real People, Real Reviews.” Don't buy it. There's nothing “real” about Yelp. And it's about time somebody pointed out the flaws in the emperor's wardrobe. I'm just glad it's a couple of Italian guys doing it.

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