Sunday, December 6, 2009


It was another who finally drove me into the dining room of Lombardino's. Another who left me... unsatisfied. One who promised me greatness but provided only mediocrity, her only consolation was that, while she would not satisfy me, at least there was a lot of her. Cold comfort.

Actually, it's more along the lines of melancholy. I actually don't like writing negative reviews. It's a little too easy to find a fault and magnify it with clever language. One dirty fork should not doom a restaurant. We can all giggle evilly while we circle a perceived flaw like sharks sniffing blood, tearing down someone's hard work and dreams for the sake of... what really? Entertainment? I wonder how many otherwise good restaurants have gone under due to the deadly combination of a less than perfect execution and a snarky reviewer gunning for readers or ratings? It was my review of Benvenuto's that drove me to Lombardino's.

I left Benvenuto's wanting to go somewhere I'd like. Somewhere I'd been looking forward to for a while. I was just starting to make plans when the opportunity suddenly blossomed like a botanical ninja. Due to a small scheduling snafu, my Bride and I found ourselves off work on a Tuesday evening, with money in our pocket and nothing much to do. Our thoughts moved quickly, consensus was reached and we darted off to Lombardino's.

I am incapable of reviewing an Italian restaurant without invoking thoughts of the movie Big Night. For those who have never seen, it is about two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secundo (Stanley Tucci) who are trying to run an authentic Italian restaurant while across town, their competition, Pascal (Ian Holm) runs a far more mediocre but predictable and popular restaurant. I promise that if you watch it, I'll stop talking about it... okay? Throw it in your Netflix queue. Once you have seen it, you will understand when I say this: Lombardino's is what would happened if Pascal's restaurant was taken over by Primo and Secundo.

Like a table-side flambé, there is not a little kitschy showmanship in Lombardino's décor. Front and center to this is the miniature model of the Trevi Fountain that greets you from its Plexiglassed, squatting spot by the entrance (I've yet to see it turned on but I notice once again that if there is any running water that isn't a toilet or a sink, people will toss coins in it). The murals of mock Italian scenes are not that different than those at Benvenuto's (as my Bride pointed out). If you asked my impression of the place after a quick whip-through of the dining room, if you told me nothing of the place's reputation or didn't let me see a menu, I might not be too enthusiastic.

But I do know the reputation. I started hearing it within my first week of arriving in Madison.

It's sometimes hard to trust people's opinions of restaurants (note: Including this person). People come to their opinions in their own way and in their own time, which is probably not your way or in your time. As an example, I have a friend who we shall call Poker. Over a few cocktails and delicious tobacco products one evening, we fell to discussing our favorite Madisonian restaurants. Poker esteems different things than I do. His personal taste runs to the “Big Portions/Good Value” school. He stands unimpressed with Lombardino's for exactly that reason. Lombardino's proudly chooses quality over quantity in it's ingredients and preparation. This is a choice which draws much affection from their regulars but for some, the value of the taste does not surpass the price of the food. If Poker was the only person I had listened to about Lombardino's, I would have grossly missed out. He is not the only person from whom I've heard an unkind word about Lombardino's either, but what struck me from moment one was how few bad words one heard about them. Disproportionately few.

Of those that spoke highly, there were no urgent cries of enthusiasm, no squeals about “how much you are going to LUHV that place!” Most endorsements I heard, and they were numerous, were made in even, factual tones. “Oh yeah, they are great.” No extraneous exclamation points, no caps, no italics. Fact + Period. As if to say, “We hold this truth to be self-evident. You will find out for yourself soon enough and if you don't, no amount of fancy language was going to convince you anyway.”

That is the kind of humble confidence that gives me a good, rock solid feeling in my gut. I knew Lombardino's was going to be great before I walked in the door and it made me feel doubly good to be right. I just had a great meal AND I have good judgment! Huzzah!

After a short perusal of the menu my Bride and I decided to split the Calamari Fritti. Now, calamari is nothing special. It's available as an appetizer in just about every Italian restaurant in the city and I've had it done a thousand times, it's one of my favorites. I've never had it done so well. The meat was cooked to a tender and delicate texture with nary a bite undercooked and squishy or overcooked and rubbery. The light, super crispy batter was the perfect textural compliment.

The waiter explained that the dish was one of their specialties (which didn't impress me that much) and that they cook it based on the sound it makes when frying (which impressed the hell out of me). Seems our friendly yet non-cloying waiter had actually spent some time working in the back of the house as a master of the fry-o-lated arts and had first hand experience.

So knowledgeable and agreeable was our waiter, we bowed to his suggestion on our wine. No, I don't remember what it was. Yes, it was excellent. Yes, that annoys me. I know I've had a lot of great wine out there, but damn if I can remember any of them. Luckily, I have recently found a solution to such issues.

One of the perils of offering up a review of any subject is that despite any literary skill or keen insight, you are still a limited sample size. A single instant data set does not an accurate reflection make. I often have such things on my mind when eating anywhere I'm going to scribble about later. I usually try to mitigate it slightly by making my selections as representative as possible. I look at a menu and try to find a signature dish, something that speaks to the core of what a restaurant is or wants to be.

After a few minutes of staring at Lombardino's menu, I chose the Linguine alla Bolognese. Bolognese is, by itself a very simple dish. It is theoretically “just a meat sauce”. But doing the simple things right can often be the hardest thing for a restaurant to do. Many an egotistical head chef with delusions of grandeur cannot be restrained from “putting his signature touch” on a dish that really should not be fucked with. My thought was that if they can do this very simple dish and do it well, mission accomplished.

It was, superb. Meat, fat, acidic notes of tomatoes and wine, creamy cheese and comforting pasta all blended seamlessly in each mouthful.

It's hard to speak on flavor. We've used up all the appropriate words describing socks and hot dogs. I can fill your ears with flowery language but they would still fall short of reality. I can't say for sure that you or anyone is guaranteed to like it. All I can say with confidence is this: This is the best Italian food I have ever had and ranks high on my best all time ever list. As far as I am concerned, Lombardino's is one of the best things about Madison.

I feel compelled to offer up another observation here, take it with as much salt as you wish.

It feels to me that a great crime would be committed in rushing a meal at Lombardino's. If the Italian culture brings any little bit of wisdom to the world it is joy and appreciation of time. Time spent in preparation, time spent at the table. Do not do yourself an injustice by stopping off for an entrée and then trying to hit a movie. That would be a crime. Lombardino's is your evenings activity, not an element within.

First off, do not go alone. Don't go as a couple. Get friends. At least four but eight would be better. Go early and leave your budget at home. This is not a place to pinch pennies. Not because they are expensive but because your menu selections should be governed solely by your own desires and not by your resources. Call it a gift to yourself. Call it a reward. You work hard, right? Life conspired to make the road rocky frequently enough that I can say, with no hesitation, that you deserve this. This is not an indulgence, this is not cheating or sinning. This is earned... this is owed.

There, now you are hopefully in the right mindset to enjoy yourself.

Apéritif? Yes! In a civilized world we always start a fine meal with a fine beverage. Stimulates the appetite and clears the palate. I recommend a Dry Martini, up, stirred, not shaken, one olive (don't want to fill up, now do we?).

Wine with dinner? Of course! What would dinner be without wine? Order a bottle. If it runs out, order another one, and another after that. You should wind up with a half a bottle left at the end of the meal so you can linger and finish it.

Antipasta? Yes. Split it if you need to leave room but if you want one for yourself... go for it. You want to order a bunch of them and pass them around the table? Excellent idea! You're a genius!

Entrée? If you even look at the price, so help me gawd I will fucking smack you. Get it because you want it.

Dessert? Need you ask?

Digestif? Have you ever had a dessert wine while you are eating your dessert? There is nothing so wonderful at the end of a meal as port and cigars. Unfortunately, in our rather philistine, barbaric times, you are not allowed to smoke cigars indoors like a civilized individual, but at least you can still have the port.

The point is that each coarse, each element is enjoyed together. The more elements, the more evening we have to enjoy. This is no dine and dash. Tell long stories, tell jokes... stupid jokes. Balance spoons on your nose. Make a toast. Make multiple toasts. Drink too much wine and kiss somebody. Have fun! Laugh too loud, stay too long, eat too much. The whole point is to linger because you want to linger. Because you are having fun and don't want the night to end.

That is how Lombardino's should be experienced.

La Dolce Vita.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cottage Cafe

Variety is the spice of life. It's an old cliché but a good one. As I was packing boxes in Fond Du Lac for my move to Madison, that little cliché served as motivation. Madison = Food Town. Ethnic grocery stores, exotic restaurants, new and interesting taste spectrum to explore and appreciate. Upon arrival, I don't think I ate at a single repeat restaurant for the first six months. I filled up on pho, curry, sushi, barbecue, gelato and pelmeni; everything I couldn't get or was not readily available before.

Two-plus years later, I am still exploring, but my desperation to immerse myself in new cuisine has slowed from “frothing cauldron of doom” to a steady boil.

As such, there are certain times and certain places where one does not feel... experimental.

Cracking the top off a new restaurant is always a little daring. We all have that moment of hesitation before entering the dining room. Will the swivel-factor be overwhelming? Will I finally encounter that mythical beast - a restaurant or bar so insular, so full of lockstep locals, that they rise up as one to reject the intrusion of this audacious newcomer who dares insinuate himself into their sanctum sanctorum.

We should all laugh at this. We should all know that it is beyond reason and that no commercial establishment has ever been anything but delighted to see a new customer walk through the door, but... restaurants... local haunts especially, can be very personal. Once one becomes a “regular,” one feels a bit of ownership and thus becomes protective in a matronly type way. I've always tried to rigidly control that particular fear and not let it stop me from venturing into uncharted waters. I have, however, often noticed my dinner and drinking companions taking ruthless advantage of my determination and bravado by casually slipping into my wake as I open a door and stride boldly forward. I guess the thought is that if they do throw bricks, they can hide behind me.

I am proud of my daring. But daring, like any emotional force, requires energy. As much as I would like to lay claim to superhuman abilities, there are days - after a long work week especially - that I simply cannot whip up such energy. My bravado fails me, my daring slips away and I long for something simple, something familiar and something comforting.

Yes. I have become one of those men who has “a breakfast place”.

My father has a breakfast place. Now retired and in his 70's, he goes up there to join the crowd of other old men, sipping coffee, telling dirty jokes and discussing the latest Packer game. It constitutes the entirety of his social interaction.

My desire for a stable, regular Breakfast Place is not actually a recent development. A few years ago and still bold enough to dream of Laksa in the morning, I stumbled upon what I hold as the greatest breakfast joint of all time.

You may have caught me at some point going off about Schreiner's Restaurant in Fond Du Lac. Schreiner's, that temple of scratch cooking. That marvelous, reliable, comforting and sweet epiphany of clam chowder for breakfast, perfectly cooked bacon, sweet and friendly wait staff and corned beef. I never went looking for a breakfast place, but I found in Schrieiner's a solution to a problem I didn't know I had. Many a Saturday morning, after a long hard week, when I found myself unwilling to rise, shine and make my own breakfast, I became inexorably drawn to the sweet spiritual pablum of a little commercially-produced TLC.

Yes, let me rise, dress, slip quietly out the door and down a very short road to the warm embrace of your slightly geriatric dining room. Let your polite and immaculately uniformed wait staff ply me with cup after cup of diner coffee, slowly reviving my downtrodden senses. Let my belly be filled with perfect over-easy eggs and crispy bacon. Let there be rye toast and orange juice. Let me stroll out, refreshed and content, ready to face the day anew.

The comfort of a Breakfast Place is the sturdy, constant sameness of the experience. I want for nothing new. I want the same experience on morning two thousand one hundred and eighty four that I had on day one. Let my mind spin in neutral. Let my guard drop, my thoughts turn inward and let a few precious moments be spent chatting casually with my beloved Bride.

I wasn't looking for a Breakfast Place, but it's sturdy comfort charmed me into being a regular.

Once we moved to Madison, my Bride and I spent over a year in pursuit of a new breakfast place. We sampled coffee shops, some famous local spots and some less than scrumptious options, but the search eventually petered out.

It's hard to brain on a Saturday morning when you are half-asleep and grumpy. After a few disappointments, we didn't have the energy to beard the lion in his own den, so to speak. We settled for making our own breakfast for a long time, grabbing the occasional bag-o-bagels from Gotham or Panera.

I finally stumbled upon a keeper in my various backstreet meanderings and at first, didn't believe what I had found.

On a side street, off Cottage Grove Road in the Elvehjem neighborhood, wedged between a daycare center and a laundromat is Cottage Café. An unassuming little storefront with a big stock block lettering sign. No logo, no website... yeah, it's that kind of place.

My first thought when I saw it? Honestly? Dive. Greasy Spoon. It's too cute to be true. It would be so cool if that little place had a friendly wait staff and great breakfast but there is NO WAY I am that lucky.

A few months later, realizing finally how stupid that particular thought was in a classic “book-by-its-cover” kinda way, I talked my Bride into going for Breakfast and we've been in love ever since.

The dual dining rooms are small and open. Classically appointed with the usually metal diner chairs, laminated tables, salt, pepper, tray of sweetener packs and small menus. The burble of morning conversation, old men laughing, clinking of cutlery and clatter of dishes is part of the experience. Signs of life and industry. The big bay windows looking out onto the parking lot make the room bright and airy on a sunny day. The decor is pseudo-northwoods-cabin chic with plenty of hand carved wooden black bears and faux woodsy feel. It should be chintzy, it's not. It's like your Mom's house.

What does one expect from a diner breakfast? What is a diner breakfast? My definition is usually a big, hearty, meal for those who rarely suffer from a thick wallet. The usual breakfast fare includes eggs, bacon, pancakes and the ubiquitous, poor quality, thin, bitter, burnt, luke-warm but-still-somehow-desirable diner coffee (I still think it's about the sugar and cream... or masochism). Regional variations include the frequent presence of dark rye toast, potato pancakes and cheddar cheese.

This is not so very different from the breakfasts served at chain restaurants. If anything, there is less variety. There is nothing rooty, tooty, fresh or fruity. The menu of some of my favorite little greasy spoon breakfast joints have a stark severity about them. Eggs: Any Style. Bread: white, wheat, toasted or untoasted or in French toast. Jams are offered. Butter is often pre-spread. Pancakes. Bacon. Sausage. Coffee. OJ. This is all that is actually required.

So what is the appeal? What keeps us coming back time and again? What is so desirable about the same thing time and again?

This is a hard one to explain. It's a cultural thing. Eggs, Toast, Bacon = Breakfast. It's farm breakfast. It's a leftover from our agrarian roots where fresh eggs, wheat and fat pork were in abundance. It's quick. Mama can have you a plate full of eggs and bacon in minutes and with only one pan dirty. It's flat iron food. Diners do not require ovens, broilers, fryers or even refrigerators or burners. Eggs, French toast, pancakes, bacon, sausage... all you need is a flat top griddle. I knew a place that used to keep it's coffee in a percolator on the corner of the griddle, making a standard diner coffeemaker unnecessary. You have to admire the efficiency.

You can get a very good idea of the quality and popularity of a diner by catching a gander at that griddle. Carbon black from years of use? Good restaurant. Popular.

Cottage Café meets these requirements and exceeds them in entertaining ways. The presence of Spam and Cheddarwurst on the menu struck me first. Two delightfully non-premium meats that are nevertheless extremely desirable when one is A. Hungover or B. About to attempt something Manly. The best part about the Spam is not just that it is there, but that it arrives at your table with a slice of American (pasteurized process) cheese (food) melted over the top. My first time there, commenting in surprise at this “too much of a... thing” addition, our waitress looked at me quizzically and asked “Isn't that the way your Mom made it?” No, no it isn't. Mom hates Spam, but I suddenly felt like the only kid in the neighborhood whose Mom didn't put cheese on his Spam.

Further entertaining menu options include Walleye and Eggs (it seems like such a natural Wisconsin marriage, I'm surprised I don't see it on more breakfast menus), Pork Chop and Eggs (now there is a farm breakfast), Potatoes O'Brien and Eggs Benedict. Now, hollandaise sauce might be a little risky but I don't care - it tastes good. I love that not only do they offer it on the Benedict, but as its own side. I recommend it as a topping for the walleye... SRSLY. It also illustrates another mark of a great diner. The menu offers simple fare with a remarkably thoughtful list of options. Want a side of sausage gravy? Maybe you want to put it over your hash browns or dip your fries in it? Who cares? You ask nice, they will probably do it for you. The menu is just a suggestion. A crutch for those with decision making disorder. If you can describe it to the waitress, they will probably do it for you. You could probably take this basic menu and create dishes never before seen by the eyes of man.

These are all entertaining additions to the menu but they are ultimately just window-dressing. Tasty diversion from those two things that are key to Cottage Café's Greatness.

As diners and consumers in this country, we often underestimate the importance of skill in production of a good product. It's our industrial love-affair perhaps that has us pursuing “more” when what we really want is “better”.

A fry cook may not be able to make you Liquid Ravioli or a plate of Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures (or maybe they can, you never know these days, but probably not), but a good fry cook can make you a perfectly cooked egg, every time. Over easy, over medium, over hard, sunny side up, scrambled but not overcooked... maybe a master chef in a three star restaurant making you a perfectly cooked Sole Meunière might be worthy of slightly higher admiration than a perfectly cooked egg. But then again, skill is skill. Maybe the repertoire isn't quite as broad, but perfectly cooked is still perfectly cooked. Michelin is unlikely to be knocking anytime soon, but at the same time, maybe we're taking such skills a little for granted.

Cottage Café nails it. 10 out of 10 on the breakfast scale and I am not speaking from a single visit/one-day perspective. We've been breaking our fast at Cottage Café for a few months now and can offer a few dozen visits as our data set. I've yet to have a bad breakfast. Eggs are always perfectly cooked to order, bacon always done right, not a burnt piece of toast to be seen. The menu is simple but the skill is anything but. Someone back there knows what an over-medium egg looks like and cranks it out like a machine. I wish this wasn't as rare as it is but in most breakfast joints and chains these days, if you order over easy, you are taking your gastrointestinal health into your own hands far more than with the hollandaise.

Like a Double Ristretto Venti Half-Soy Nonfat Decaf Organic Chocolate Brownie Iced Vanilla Double-Shot Gingerbread Cappuccino Extra Hot With Foam Whipped Cream Upside Down Double Blended, One Sweet'N Low, One Nutrasweet, and Ice, breakfast eggs are one of those things we highly personalize. Everyone has “their” breakfast order, and even though diners are completely unrelated or unincorporated establishments, they share a common breakfast language. We all speak breakfast. If you walk into a diner in Oregon and order two eggs over easy with wheat and bacon, you will get the same thing (if the person behind the grill knows what they are doing) as if you place the same order in Maine. We're particular about it. Some people fear runny yolks, some runny whites. Some people like their bacon floppy and some burned to a crisp. Breakfast is a very personal thing and the diner that can get your particular breakfast creation right is the only easy access we're likely to have to such personal service in our adult lives. They can make your breakfast the way your Mom made your breakfast.

Speaking of Personal Service, this leads into Cottage's second strength.

Our waitress's name is Penny. Penny is our waitress. After our second visit, we knew Penny's name. We always sit in Penny's section. I'm not sure if Penny remembers our names yet but she knows our faces and she's clever enough to fake like she remembers ;-).

Penny is friendly. Penny is attentive. Penny keeps our coffee filled, is non-plussed by any special order, knows the menu by heart and has been working there for years.

Penny is always good for a joke. Penny laughs readily and manages to be “happy” without being “cheerful” in the morning (which, as any pre-coffee coffee junkie can tell you, is grounds for murder in the most horrific manner). Upbeat and funny but still maintaining an appropriate level of world-weary, slightly cynical attitude that is perfect commiseration for hungry, work-weary, groggy patrons. Such an attitude takes YEARS to perfect.

Penny IS Cottage Café for us as much as the food.

Most of the waitresses at the Café are Penny's type. I hate to invoke the word “Flo” here but you know what I mean. Restaurant floor lifers. These are not the giggling, crystal-bright, easily flustered teeny-bopper servers at your local Applebee's or Olive Garden. These gals would eat those skinny chicks for breakfast and pick their teeth with the bones. They can handle more tables, sling more chow and defuse more grumpy customers than anyone. They operate with a code of customer service that corporate chain restaurants would throw a rod over. Dirty jokes and swearing are allowed. You can tell a customer to shut up, to their face, and get away with it. Cause a disturbance in the dining room and they will not escort you politely to the door. They will kick you out and if you are not moving fast enough you may have to dodge flying crockery.

But once you become a regular, once they remember your name, you become part of the place. If you are what you eat and I stay in Madison, I'll probably be 1/21st part Cottage Café in a few years. I'm a little weirded out that I, like my father, now have “a breakfast place.” I know that this is a sign that I am growing older. But, if growing old tastes this good, maybe it isn't all that bad.

Maybe our second time there, my Bride noticed a Thank You card taped to the cash register. The card was from the family of an elderly patron who has “crossed the bar,” so to speak. Cottage Café took the time to send flowers to his funeral and the family, in return, sent them a card. Expressed in the card were thanks for flowers and the line, “we thank you for the big part you played in his life and we hope there is a Cottage Café in heaven”.

Name me another kind of restaurant where such a thing could happen?

Name me a better endorsement than a hope that the afterlife is as good as your breakfast place?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Benvenuto's and I have an interesting history. Despite what some Madisonians believe, their flagship store was in, of all places, my home town of little old Beaver Dam.

Their very first store opened as my first foray in the the foodie subculture bloomed. Before the word “foodie” had even been coined. I liked food, I liked to cook, my first cuisine of interest was Italian and in the desperately mediocre world of the Beaver Dam culinary scene, I literally could not believe my luck when Benvenuto's opened. Benvenuto's then was a very, very different creature than it is now. I still, looking back, cannot believe the sheer size of their mighty chrome testicles to offer such a menu in a town so small and so inexperienced. Even today it would not go over, even in Madison (and I'm obviously right, as we shall see).

In a very Big Night manner, they offered house-made italian sodas, cream pastas with shellfish (I do not think there was another shellfish dish anywhere else on any menu anywhere in BD), a communal jug of house wine to every table, regardless of whether you have asked for it, garlic olive oil and fresh foccacia for sopping and,this was my favorite, an honest-to-goodness antipasta plate with salami, pepperocini, marinated mushrooms, cheese and olives.

To this day, any Italian restaurant gets HUGE points in my estimation for offering an antipasta plate. For those who don't know, it's just a little snack plate of various nibblies offered in many restaurants because all the items were the rare surplus, well preserved and available year round. Salami is cured, pepperocini, mushrooms and olives are all brined or pickled and cheese is acidified and preserved by it's own process. It relates in a similar way to English “sideboard” offerings.

I like to nibble. I'm a cheese and sausage kinda guy. I credit my French heritage. I happily can and will make a meal out of snacks for breakfast lunch and dinner.

I can't tell you what percentage of my paychecks I spent at Bevenuto's those first few months but I'm certain I did my share to support their business. I hung out at the bar and drank some of my first cocktails. I knew the wait staff by name. I made a point of taking my friends there and I took great delight in introducing it to people who have never been.

I remember their food fondly. Gigantor Caesar Salads, the garlic mash-potatoes, the Foccacia, the baked alfredo pasta with Parmesan cheese.

The antipasta and the house wine were such authentic Italian touches that they couldn't last. I dined there long enough to see the antipasta plate slip off the menu. I was probably the only one that ever ordered it. It changed to a “antipasta salad” which I once ordered by mistake.

We've always had an issue with Wine in this country. Either starting revolutions over it, or ignoring it completely. The stigma attached to wine still sends out conflicted signals. Isn't wine fancy? Aren't wine drinkers snobs? Isn't wine expensive? Isn't good wine expensive? The image of the cork sniffing, pinky raised, pooh-poohing wine “connoisseur” still haunts us. Wine has it's own strange language that is far deeper and thicker than any other adult beverage including cocktails and single-malt scotches. A lot of people buy into, despite their denials otherwise, the notion that drinking wine makes you look sophisticated. From the outside looking in, the language seems impenetrable, the investment steep and the company seems less than desirable.

The irony here is that, for the vast majority of the non-American wine-drinking world, the wine consumed is NOT fancy. Wine is an every day thing. Not everyone who drinks wine in France and Italy cracks open an expensive bottle at every meal, but they do drink wine. It is understood that there is a difference between “house” or “table” wine, what the French call vin ordinaire and the stuff you whip out on special occasions or when company comes over. Table wine is not consumed out of 200 dollar Riedel glassware, it's probably coming out of the same glasses you drink everything from. Tell that to an American wine snob and the aneurysms popping sounds like gunfire.

We would be better thinking of wine like we think of beer. It'd be nice to drink Heineken or Samuel Adams' Utopias on a daily basis, chances are you can't afford it and a lot of beer drinkers would look at you like a freak if you insisted that if you couldn't... it's not worth drinking. On a day to day basis, there is probably a 12 pack of Bud, or Miller, or Pabst chilling in your fridge and if it comes down to “less than optimal” beer or no beer at all... fuck that, gimme a beer. As I have always said, my favorite kind of beer is the kind I don't have to pay for.

The American consumers inability to see the joys of table wine is really doing a number on their collective pocket books. I believe the average price of a bottle of wine in a restaurant is about 3 times retail price at this point, putting it well beyond my budgie and well into the selfish realms of “conspicuous consumption”. Bugger that. Give me my jug of Carlo Rossi Burgundy at my table and let me actually have a few glasses. It's not BAD wine. It's not great. It wouldn't want to drink toasts at a wedding with it, but it's fine for dinner. Do you really want to drink a delicate, refined and nuanced bottle of wine while you're forking down cream pasta with bacon? You wouldn't know the difference between Chateau Montelena and Chateau Mad Dog.

My love affair with Benvenuto's ended suddenly and violently. I became privy to some disturbing information regarding a very, very poor customer service choice made by an erstwhile manager. The nature of this information was so foul that I made the choice not to give them my custom again. I have since encouraged others to do the same.

I believe quite strongly in the power of the almighty greenback and that, if you disapprove of someones business practices, your best way discouraging it is by not giving them your money. People can protest Wal-Mart until they are blue in the face, but people still shop there and that is what matters.

It has been well over a decade since I have actually gone to a Bevenuto's store and I have missed it. I decided that 10 years is long enough to hold a grudge and so, when my Bride suggested it for lunch amidst our errand running this weekend, I agreed.

Despite the many years, I looked forward to the Benvenuto's of old. I looked forward to all my old favorites. Most importantly, I looked forward to a good Italian meal. I think that is what disappointed me the most.

Given our proximity amidst our errands, we took ourselves to the north-side location.

Big tease right off the bat, one of their faux Italian theme-park storefronts was for salumeria and the very fact that someone knew enough to paint that on the wall gave me a little thrill... which lasted just long enough for me to open the menu.

Bevenuto's has become safe. When it came down to a choice between unique and familiar, they chose the latter. Looking at their lunch menu, my first thought, vocalized in a less than charitable tone to my undeserving bride, was that this was barely an “Italian” restaurant anymore. Nothing says Italy like deep fried fish, chicken and shrimp. I twitched every time I saw things like Jack Daniels BBQ sauce, southwest chicken salad, the satanic Chicken Caesar, Greek salad, Cobb salad, Asian Chicken salad and, oh gawd, this one bout killed me... Cajun Grilled Pasta? This is chain food. The menu is designed to please the palate of the lunching office worker.

Now don't get me wrong, the food at Bevenuto's is still good. I had a decent salad and a nice bowl of shrimp fettuccine in a garlic cream sauce. My Bride and I left full and satisfied with the service and the food. Benvenuto's makes good food. They are reliable. It's the kind of place you could go to a hundred times and never have a “bad” meal. They are a crowd pleaser. Someplace safe and familiar where even the fussiest of eaters can find a pleasing menu selection. There is a place for that in the restaurant world, but that place is getting a over crowded. There are so many others just like it.

Compared to the rest of Madison, it doesn't stand out. It's not unique, it's not putting forth any extra effort or obsessing over fresh ingredients, new ideas or new techniques. They are not trying to reproduce the feel and the taste of Italy in any way deeper than the thickness of paint.

My Bride and I had a rather heated debate about this. Somewhat offended at my immediate dismissal of the menu out-of-hand, she pressed me to define what, if anything, was wrong with what Benventuo's is? What is the basis for my disapproval?

Is there anything wrong with a broader, familiar, crowd pleasing menu even if wanders away from your ascribed to cuisine? Is it that my “highly refined palate” cannot be bothered by anything less that the finest cuisine available? It is not hard, I think, to come off like a snob here, pooh-poohing the business choices of a restaurant I have no financial risk in. I can sit here comfortably behind my keyboard and whing about how this restaurant is lame or that it doesn't have the exotic, expensive and obscure fare I desire or demand. It carries about as much weight as the overweight armchair quarterback cussing out his team and bragging how “he could do better”.

We have a long history in this country of scapegoating businesses, corporations and pretty much anything that can be defined as “The Man”. I try to keep this under wraps because it really isn't fair. A business employs people. It puts food in the mouths of the employees and their children. It is not a crime to make money. Isn't that what we all want anyway? Isn't the American dream to be rich and successful?

Foodies are often rather dismissive and insensitive to this, but the truth is that many, many, many delightful hole-in-the-wall restaurants doing exciting and daring new foods have floundered financially due to the uncompromising idealist vision of a chef who could not understand the balance sheet.

I'm sure that the Benvenuto's menu has morphed into it's current incarnation over time due to market pressures from it's clientèle.

In other words, it has become what is has become as a response to... us. The Consumer.

Because who we give our custom to decides what business stay and what business go. Every penny we spend on everything from cheap cheeseburgers to Wagu beef and Fois Gras dictates what kind of restaurants arise to supply our demand. Restaurateurs agonize over menus, decor, prices and location... trying hopelessly to divine the fickle, stingy and seemingly schizophrenic mind of the consumer. So many people have sunk their life savings into opening their own little restaurant, their own slice of the American dream, just to watch that dream die a slow and painful death because the drive was five minutes too long or the prices were 50 cents cheaper somewhere else.

Now, don't get me wrong, restaurants do share SOME of the blame for bad choices. As with the case of Cloud 9, where a restaurant chose to try to please absolutely everyone at once and sets itself up for failure. Some restaurants only offer safe, middle of the road, least-common-denominator fair out of fear that more exotic and experimental fare will fail to attract a crowd. Sometimes that is prudent fiscal strategy and sometimes it is just cowardice. The market is saturated with restaurants who play it safe. Despite this, however, the lion share of the blame lies firmly on our own shoulders.

This is a war of inches... or perhaps pennies. We each have to decide what is important to us. Is money the bottom line? Is quality? Is it something else? Do you care what is local? Do you care what is imported? A Foodie, a Vegetarian, a Vegan, a Chef, a Gourmet or suburban house wife can each talk your ears off for hours on considerations from mercury content to political ramifications of wheat production.

There are no wrong answers to these questions, but each one has an effect... a consequence. We should perhaps consider what consequences our choices have. What kind of restaurants exist, what kind of food is offered, is up to us.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Rules #1

I am one of those cursed souls who does not accept easy explanations. They bring me no comfort. In fact, easy explanations make me incredibly nervous. When I hear people dismiss things out of hand with a “Well, you know what they say...”, the ellipsis might as well be trailing off a cliff in my mind. Maximum frustration is derived from any inference that it is one of “God's Mysteries”. I've read the Bible and in no place does it say “Thou shalt not be curious.” I understand that part of any religion is to offer an explanation for the unexplainable but this is 2009, we're well past the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, isn't that kind of thinking obsolete? We have answers now. Even if we don't have all the answers, we have a system for discovery.

I want to know, I want to understand. I want answers and I know that I'll spend the rest of my life in pursuit of them. This may bring me no peace but it will certainly not be boring.

Part of figuring things out is establishing a framework of understanding. Touchstones, benchmarks, solid or at least semi-solid footholds and cornerstones from which one can anchor other theories and cling to while exploring other concepts.

Now, as an empiricist, I recognize that any attempt to define a constant in an ever changing world could be at least futile and at most delusional, but I've seen enough evidence to conclude for my own conscience that there are certain constants that can be reliably counted upon to be true.

In my years of fascination with Human Nature, I've started this tiny notepad file. It's moved with me from computer to computer, from diskette to CD-ROM to thumb drive. It's labeled simply “The Rules” and every time I come upon one of these constants, I write it down for safekeeping. I am certain that this is in no way a complete list. There are any number of them that await adequate reinforcement or the proper definition. Some of them have made the list only to be removed later as my perceptions change. A number of them have been aggregated as two or three concepts are distilled down to an underlying concept or truth. I have always thought that I'd jot these down in a book some day but I think I'll throw them out here. I've recently been inspired by Neil Gaimen's blog to get off my tuckus, start blogging again and... well, I needed a topic. So here we go. Please keep in mind that these are in no way ordered by priority or importance, except for perhaps the first one.

Rule #1: People are People

Yes gawd help me, right off the bat I'm adding so much dignity and gravitas to my little wack-a-doo theories by naming one after a bit from the Muppet's Take Manhattan. But before you click on that Facebook link, hear me out.

As human beings, we are not wired to be a society. We're wired to be a tribe. A small group of like-minded people that can be trusted. We take comfort in the tribe and when their isn't one, our mind invents one. We seek to differentiate ourselves from the everyone by identifying with a small group. Be it a job, hobby, style, like, dislike or whatever. Short people, fat people, long hair, short hair, IT professionals, foodies, Virgos, homeowners, Americans, motorcyclists, vegetarians, 3rd shifters, Europeans, Wisconsinites, white trash, blah blah blah blah.

Some of these groups are very rigorous and insular. Some can barely be said to exist at all. Often it is pressure or a threat from outside that determines how tight knit and well defined the group is. The more widely perceived and more dangerous the threat is, the tighter a group will circle the wagons.

That sounds somewhat bad but having been a part of such groups, I don't wonder at the appeal. Within the group, drawn together for mutual benefit, the camaraderie and solidarity is euphoric. Soldiers speak of their “comrades in arms” with such fondness and I understand the sentiment.

This is the good side of the tribal instinct and this is why it worked so long as a survival trait. The mental reward for forming a group and the fact that the reward grows as the threat grows is a fantastic motivator for cooperation.

But there is a dark side to this trait as well. For as we knit ourselves together into a cohesive “Us”, everyone outside our little circle becomes “Them” and for every ounce of altruism we feel twords our beloved “Us”, it's matched by fear and suspicion of “Them”.

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.“ - Terry Pratchett, Jingo

It's a step down a very dark and dangerous road to set a group apart as Them. It's so natural and easily done but the forces you are toying around with are fundamentally responsible for the vast, vast, vast majority of human tragedy.

Call Them what you will, people don't like Them. Eventually, if they feel threatened enough by Them, they start thinking of ways to deal with Them. This is where things start getting nasty.

Genocide defines the The 8 Stages of Genocide and you'll find the very first stage strangely familiar.

1. CLASSIFICATION: All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide. The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Catholic church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide. - Gregory H. Stanton, President, Genocide Watch

Now not all acts of distinction between groups lead to genocide. Let's be fair. I don't think we'll every see a World War between Blonds and Redheads. (not to say that wouldn't be cool). But everything that has later turned into War or Genocide or killing in general, has to pass through that thought process to get where it is going. It's the “gateway thought”. When you define Us and Them, death is at the far end of that thought process.

This is my favorite picture in the world, because, well, it is the world.

I'm not the only one to notice the complete lack of national borders when viewed from above. I'm also not the only person to notice how frail and tenuous our grasp on life is. Here we sit, on our little blue marble, on the shores of the galactic beach, with crushing pressure and boiling lava below us and freezing vacuum above. Our thin, thin strip of life giving, habitable space that houses all our hopes, dreams and useless conflicts.

Once you've seen this, how can there ever be a Them again? In the great cosmic sense of things, are our manufactured differences of politics, religion, culture or taste worth much of anything? Are they worth killing each other over?

To make it acceptable to define and delineate any group makes it acceptable for anyone to do to me. It means I can be quantified and organized and walled off. Because the same thought process that defines Them decides what They should have for food, drink, opportunities or freedom. It's at the heart of segregation and war. It cheapens my life and my worth.

And so, I reject it. I reject Them. There is only Us. We. Humanity. I understand that our cultures make us colorful, but we are Humans first, everything else second. As it should be.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. - United States Declaration of Independence, Continental Congress, July 4, 1776

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, December 10th, 1948

And so, in the end, the rule is this: People is People. We are more alike than we are different. We are all human beings. Whatever our differences of culture or ideology, we are fundamentally connected by our humanity.

That's a rule.