Swimming in Sauce (Issue 763)

In which we are reminded to close the gap between “marketing hype” and what our product teams actually deliver.

It’s a lovely room. Up three steps from the cobble-stone street and sidewalk, “quaint” doesn’t even begin to describe this intimate beauty that appears on almost everybody’s list of top Italian restaurants in these parts.

We arrived for an early dinner, right after work, and were treated to the table in the back left corner, next to the small Christmas tree. Very cozy, quiet enough for us hear each other.

I felt like pasta. In addition to the ubiquitous “linguini and clams with garlic,” the chef offered baked penne with tiny Apulian-style meatballs, fresh mozzarella, and roasted tomato sauce; orecchiette with sweet Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, tomatoes with pecorino cheese and herbed bread crumbs; and a black pepper tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms in a mushroom cream sauce.

My companion went with the tiny Apulians, I chose the black pepper tagliatelle.

We nibbled, we talked. We nibbled, we talked. And then our sweet, attentive server arrived with the pasta.

The penne and tiny Apulians came in a parchment brown bag (en pappillote, had we been in a French restaurant) which released a warm, moist cloud of tomato and cheese aromas when opened.

I looked down at mine – a heaping plate of matted pasta, swimming in a thick-as-gravy brownish-cream sauce, mushrooms swarming like a school of small fish.

Anticipating the worst…. And remembering this was a “be nice, you’re sitting with a client” dinner, I took a deep breath, released slowly, smiled, twirled a bit on my fork, and tasted.

I would not be doing full justice to the moment by saying that the mushroom gravy completely overwhelmed (think “using Niagara Falls to fill a 10 ounce drinking glass”)… completely overwhelmed the black pepper tagliatelle which now served only as limp secondary texture for the swimming porcini mushrooms.

Profoundly disappointing. A HUGE gap between what I thought I was ordering, based on the menu description (and my previous experiences with winter-season cream sauces at high-end Italian restaurants), and what I received. A huge gap between the restaurant reviews and my reality.

Contrast this with my experience three nights later in another neighborhood. When I again chose a mushroom pasta dish (yeah, I know, a gluten for punishment) – black pepper potato dumplings, wild mushrooms, Parmegiano cheese, white Truffle oil), our server took about 30 seconds to describe the dish – how it’s prepared, the consistency, how the flavors work – and then asked, “ How does that sound? Do you think you’ll like that?”

I did think I would like it.

By taking just a few seconds during my buying process to ensure that she closed the gap between the words written on the marketing slick – the menu – and what her product manufacturing team delivered from the kitchen, she gave me a choice and assured me of a good outcome. She did great. I received exactly what I expected. I loved the meal.


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