Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Benvenuto's

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.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I too remember the early days of Bevenuto's when they had a proper bruschetta bread and the entrees where made to share. As you said, they still make good food, but it’s not like it was back when you really felt that you’d found a unique place. It’s a damn shame we didn’t become friends sooner, I can only imagine the conversations between us getting louder and louder over a bottle of wine in those early glorious days.
For the record, the Greek salad is blah especially compared to Sun View across the street where they make it properly with anchovies and feta cheese. As my wife pointed out, however, I’m the idiot that ordered a Greek dish from and Italian restaurant.

I think you need to be a bit optimistic. America is becoming less homoginistic in its tastes. Take beer for example, even as the super breweries keep merging, craft brews are making real advances on market share every year. I’d like to think the same thing can happen to restaurants.