Sunday, October 05, 2008

Retribution and Restitution

Today everything is different; there's no action... have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food - right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody... get to live the rest of my life like a schnook -Henry Hill, Goodfellas (1990)

I feel soiled. I was just going in to break bread with old and new colleagues, nothing too earth shattering.

After obligatory appetizers during a reception period (unripe melon and over salty “S.Daniele” prosciutto, caprese salad with mealy, mushy, tasteless tomato, meatballs that tasted more like sawdust than meat) I opted for something simple, “Spaghettini al Pomodoro”. Well, the spaghettini was spaghetti and it wasn’t imported, tasted like some off brand from China. The sauce, which this time of the year should be fresh and bright, was brown and lifeless, the overcooked noodles lying listlessly in a pool of the bloody soup. Good thing I asked them to forgo the garlic, eh? I really showed them.

I was sitting with the CEO of a major import company, with his managers arranged around the table with our people. The CEO, in the business for 40 or so years, told a story of a mid-western retailer that they had opted-out of doing business with. Seemed it was cheaper to not do business with them than to bow to their unusual demands and slotting fees. After a few years the retailer wanted the CEO to take a meeting with him so they could discuss their future business. Now, the CEO can tell a pretty good story and he told it like this.

“So I go into this office with this big shot retailer, who thinks he’s the only game in town, and it was a big town. And these guys were used to getting their way. This was a city that had very few rules, and the way to do business in this place hadn’t changed since before prohibition. Someone always had their hand in your pocket, it was just a matter of how deep you’d let them go. I look at this retailer and I ask him why he called this meeting. He looks me over, a cigar in the corner of his mouth, and tells me it was time for my company to make retribution and restitution. He figures he lost so much money not doing business with us and he has it figured out to the dime. This galumph wants me to hand him a wad of money, thousands and thousands of dollars, to be able to get back in the ring. That was the retribution part. Then, if I go along with that he would be expecting me to come up with, in addition to that, more dough to sweeten the pot on going forward in the future with him on the deals. That was the restitution part. I gotta tell you, I was flabbergasted that this guy had the stones to think he could dictate the terms to me. After all, I come from a big city too, bigger than his g*ddam meat-packing town. And I was gonna have nothin’ to do with this clown. So I walked away from it, and saved my company even more thousands of dollars and untold grief in dealing with these kinds of shake-down characters.”

I had heard stories like this from the older guys, but this one seemed so timely. We were sitting in the back room of a restaurant eating overpriced and inferior food, with little or no chance of doing business with the restaurant. Seems after all these years of doing business in good faith, hot shot deliveries at all times of the year and special favors, now this restaurant owner wants the suppliers to come to his place at the end of every month and run their credit cards for $5-10 a case for every wine he buys from them. Very illegal, but no way to actually catch anyone in the act. It’s a business we run, not walk, away from. And don’t look back.

All that and a crappy plate of spaghetti al pomodoro? Say, it ain’t so, Joe.

In my home base, there have been a bunch of so-called Italian places failing lately. Some, for reasons of high rent, some because they just haven’t had the traffic. I think more than a few of them just haven’t gotten it yet. If you’re a place with a $4.99 all-the-spaghetti-you-can-eat place, you’re going to go looking for the cheapest ingredients, because the folks coming into that kind of spot don’t care. But if you’re charging $20 for a plate of pasta, there is no excuse for using inferior ingredients. I had one restaurant owner argue with me that people here don’t know the difference. And he came from a place where pasta and pizza reach their highest expressions. He argued with me, as if I (or the poor lugs that came in there) didn’t have a shred of a clue as to how the real food should taste. Lots of sauce, lots of garlic, lots of (Argentinean) cheese. The place is shuttered. He claims his wine business was too demanding and he had to spend more time on it. Yesterday, I saw a display of his wine being closed out in a store. Guess he’s not batting so well these days. But what do we know? We’re all just a bunch of idiots. Or maybe that was retribution for his pride and arrogance?

It’s not that hard. Last month, all over Italy, we didn’t have a bad meal. From the little buco of an osteria in Rome to the one star Michelin in the Maremma. People in Italy have a higher regard for their palates and they have developed a higher sense of taste and more specifically, the quality of taste, and have higher expectations.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that cooking at home in Italy is at a very high level, and for the restaurant in Italy to survive, they have to meet or exceed the standards of the home kitchen. Here in the US, while it is changing, the home kitchen still hasn’t developed so evenly. In recent years, it has slid backwards in many households with pre-made foods invading the freezer and the microwave substituting for the range and the hearth.

But a simple bowl of pasta, how in the name of Mary can they screw it up here so often?

These same folks we were having dinner with, a few weeks ago, they had a winemaker in town, making the rounds. One of the places we stopped in , they invited us back after we did our day, come in for dinner. I bowed out, was preparing to go to Italy the next day, but a handful (5-7) folks went on over to the place in the late evening. Seems the chef talked to them, said he would prepare a few things and bring them out. A few hours ( and plates) later, when all was said and done, they asked for the bill. $1100. Maybe $150 of that in wine.

Now that night, I was told, the dining room was not too full. But that night, the restaurant made their number. Unfortunately those folks will never, ever return.

About ten years ago in another city I had a winemaker and his family in town. We were supposed to do a winemaker dinner, but the restaurant didn’t promote it. So the owner, said, no problem, he’d invite a few friends and we’d all have dinner. And we did, about 12 of us. At the end of the night they presented to the winemaker a bill for $1700, including the meal of the owner, his wife and their friends. Even charged them full mark-up for the wine, which was “donated”. Or maybe that was restitution for all these years of supplying well made, honest wine to the restaurateur? I haven’t spent a penny in that place since then.

Looking around at America and the Western World, I have to wonder if this economic crisis doesn’t stem from a personal vacuity that seeks to fill the void with things; money, fame; recognition, or just being the one on the top of the dunghill. It’s too simple to just call it greed, because it is also ignorance, and lack of respect for one’s livelihood and one’s community.

And then we wonder why the young ones walk around with their cell phones, texting invisible friends instead of interacting with the world in front of them. Or maybe, is it just an instinctual repudiation of an industry that no longer has a valid place in their, or our, world?

Or maybe it's all just going to hell in America.


Marco said...

You are so optimistic;) Olive oil, garlic, maybe some onion, decent canned tomatoes (they couldn't find fresh ones in Texass?), basil. It's not like you are asking for something from Pluto for God's sake. Pathetically sad.

Tracie P. said...

much to say on everything, but for now i shall bite mah tongue...for obvious reasons.

but, i can say, pasta col pomodoro is SO simple, that it is the easiest thing to screw up. and they do.

i am SO not surprised! why is it so hard to find even decent italian food? i really don't understand.

Anonymous said...

Working as long as I have in the "dirty south" I see atrocious ethical practices pretty much on a daily basis. You hinted at it, but it's almost as if the criminal element or at the very least the criminal mindset persists after prohibition. It's almost as if because of the very fact that it's illegal to perpetrate these acts of low morality that they plague this industry in particular.

There are plenty of Wonks out there that scream for the dismantling of the three-tier system, but I'm not sure how aware they are that we'd really be handing the henhouse to the fox for safekeeping. To be honest, I would love to see a reformation of the alcohol trade, but the outright filth of corruption like this HAS to be routed out.

It's fascinating that for all the up-tight-ness and cross-bearing that many of these states portray how little they are willing to do anything to scour their own lands of this filth and how the posture itself is all the self-assurance they need.

I'm not sure if I'm seeing ghosts or if I actually get your point, but it IS like pasta pommodoro. What is simple and honest is best--a lesson lost on many industries I fear.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Jason -
deep thoughts, indeed.
some of it covered in this post
Reorganizing Italy ~ Part 2

Thanks for stopping by...

Ciambellina said...

You make so many interesting points but I will just touch on one.

"Perhaps one of the reasons is that cooking at home in Italy is at a very high level, and for the restaurant in Italy to survive, they have to meet or exceed the standards of the home kitchen."

That's pretty astute.

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