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That’s Italiano: sul Fuoco

March 26, 2010

On the way into work today I noticed that long time, local east Phoenix restaurant, That’s Italiano was empty.  Well empty is a confusing word – it is usually empty.  I mean to say empty, as in cleaned out, gutted, shuddered, and closed for business.  I often wondered how this place always stayed open.  Passing by, it never seemed that they turned enough tables to make a profit.  Regardless it is a shame to see yet another long tenured local restaurant crushed under the weight of our faltering economy.

I am very familiar with the code of the food critic (sometimes loosely applied to food blogging): always visit a restaurant 3 times prior to writing a review, never visit in the first month of opening, always remain anonymous, never except freebies, etc.  I’m ripping up that first rule.  I passed judgment on That’s Italiano after just a single visit, long, long ago.   I’m ignoring the first rule based upon the following mitigating circumstances; for starters it is closed – so I can’t return for more punishment, oh – and it also caught on fire with me in it.

That’s Italiano had been open since at least 2000.  Located in the 3700 block on the main drag of Indian School Road afforded it a very high level of visibility.  Driving by it all the time – it reminded me of an old school, Italian family run restaurant, something like that seen in the movie Big Night. It was small, run by a sole proprietor, family oriented, local – it called to me.  A few years back my wife and I decided to make our first trip there – it ended very badly.  It was a fairly busy Friday night.  The host and presumed proprietor informed us of a 15 minute wait for our two top.  We decided to get a drink at the bar.  I ordered Jen a wine and myself a Peroni.  Even before the bartender finished serving the drinks, we were told our table was ready.  I paid for our drinks and joined Jen at the table.  The dining room was nice enough – but cliché Italian, with white linen table cloths, faux fresco paintings adorned the walls, and a bust of some Caesar over in the corner.  We ordered our appetizer, entrees, and another round of drinks.  We tried the predictable fried calamari it was good, served with the obligatory house marinara sauce.

While waiting for our meal we noticed some commotion coming from the kitchen, make that a lot of commotion.  There was some yelling and shouting, odd for a quiet Italian restaurant.  Then came the smoke.  I had just assumed they tripped a breaker on an exhaust hood or something.  No big deal.  Then came our meals along with more smoke from the kitchen.  As soon as I picked up my fork the wait staff started telling all the patrons to evacuate!  Okay – done.  I grabbed my full beer and headed for the door.  Our waiter stood guarding the door, like  one of Benito Mussolini’s Blackshirt secret police.  He had his priorities though – he was well versed in the liquor laws of the county.  “You can’t bring that out here sir – we will lose our liquor license”.  I was thinking he is about to lose more than just his license – he’s going to need to find a new place to work soon.  As soon as I tacitly complied with his order – I watched a different waiter bring out a tray of drinks to some regulars standing next to me – nice.  I see how this works.  Meanwhile the Phoenix Fire Department arrives on scene.  At this point I’m watching the sauce separate on my Farfalle con Salmone and I am wondering if we should just leave and go somewhere else – or wait it out and see if the incident is minor and we might be allowed to return.  You see, my wife and I have this morale dilemma:  we ordered food, ate appetizers, sipped some drinks.  We have worked in the industry.  At our core we feel we can’t just stiff these guys.

We opted to wait – mistake number two.  It is often during times of great calamity that the true colors of a manager, owner, waiter of line cook shine through.  In this situation the owner/manager could have been talking to all his remaining patrons, given them an update, thanked them for their patience etc.  Instead he just paced around outside, back and forth, talking on his cell phone.  I realize your life’s work might be on fire right now – but thus far it is contained in the kitchen, the Fire Department is in house. At this point, it is time for damage control – it is time to write off your night’s losses, comp the meals, smile and offer freebies to your customers for their next visit, and start anew tomorrow.  Instead he instructs his wait staff to box up the meals left on the table bring checks out the guests.  I am in utter shock at hearing this.  I’m thinking I should have left, but didn’t so now I’m in.  I’m pot committed – I guess.  My waiter appears with our boxed food and a check – I look at the check and see my confiscated beer on the bill.  I hand it back to him – “you’re kidding right?” and walk away.

Until this week I had always felt guilty about writing a negative post about That’s Italiano.  I just felt bad about bagging on a guy trying to make a living in the restaurant business.  Then, I couldn’t bring myself to write negatively about them without having given them a second chance, and while at the time I had vowed to never return; now I no longer need to worry about that commitment (unless of course they just opted not to renew their lease and relocate).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. pete vogel permalink
    April 1, 2010 8:34 am

    Kyle,

    Not only are you a hell of a cook, you’re a hell of a writer. Excellent blog on the Italian Restaurant. Sensational.

    I recently took April to G. Michael’s (in Columbus) for Valentine’s Day and we both agreed that it was the best meal we’ve had in town in a long time. I’m glad to see that restaurant is on your list.

    Hope you and the family are well.

    Pete

    • vesperbistro permalink*
      April 1, 2010 8:37 am

      Thanks Pete… G. Michael’s – I miss that place. Obviously it has been years. Next trip out we will all have to head over there!

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