Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stuzzi — Adding salt to the mix.

After one of my fellow food bloggers exposed some questionable management techniques at Stuzzi, I was determined that we wouldn't try it. The place had gotten enough negative press from fellow foodies for mediocre pies, poor climate control, an inexperienced staff, and a bloviating owner that we had steered clear already. Still, the place also had enough buzz that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Fast-forward to this past Sunday when a friend suggested it for dinner. The kid had headed off for the night with her mom, and I hadn't planned ahead for dinner so we had a "why not" moment.

When we arrived, there were people spilling out the door. Even on a Sunday night, the place was buzzing. And when I say buzzing, I mean it. The room is loud. Very loud and about as much a contrast from its former life as one can imagine. The rounded cutouts behind the bar with their glass shelves and rotating lights look like a "hip" restaurant designers dream from New York in the late eighties.

Our friend was waiting at the bar, drinking a decent, but too warm chianti out of a big juice glass. She'd already put our names in, and L and I looked over the wine list while the bartender buzzed about. Before we had a chance to order, though, the hostess told us our table was ready. Points for timing since L was hungry. This same, poor hostess seemed befuddled, however, when we decided to wait for our friend to pay her tab. She insisted she could just seat us, but we asked to wait a moment. Watching her intermittently over the course of the evening, it was clear she was inexperienced and looked scared.

In any case, once we were at our table, the waiter came for our drink order. The wine list was fairly basic, with wines named by grape and/or blend rather than producer. Nonetheless, the prices hovered in the low twenties for the basic chiantis and montepulcianos. When I asked the waiter to tell me about a nero and a super Tuscan, however, he admitted he knew nothing about the wines on the list. "French wine's really my thing," he added. It was a baffling comment — especially in a restaurant that purports to give you a "real" Italian experience. We punted and opted for the inexpensive montepulciano. Better to pay less for something made for quick drinking than spend the extra bucks on a good wine served at the wrong temperature.

The menu covers the gamut of expected apps and neapolitan pies. There were a few small surprises like ember-roasted eggplant and a vongole pie, but overall I felt like I could have predicted almost everything on the menu. The pastas were the only exception — a few interesting preparations — but we were here for the pizza. Ordering, we settled on the calamari fritti over the caprese and opted for a wild mushroom pie and a neapolitan pie.

Our neighbor's food came out, and considering how close the tables are, it's easy to watch what everyone else eats. Our first thought was relief for not ordering the caprese — who fries mozzarella? It just seemed wrong. The plate of calamari was flavorful but the portion was a third the size of the calamari we'd ordered at another restaurant two nights before. For the same price.

But what of the pizzas? The pizzas that the menu glorifies to high heaven. The pizzas that are supposedly certified by a governing body. The pizzas that come out of a monstrous, red-tiled woodfired oven.

Meh. They're okay. Just okay.

The wild mushroom pie came with a half-pound of arugula dumped on the pie and drizzled with balsamic, a pizza salad if you will. When I had a pie with rocket in Italy, the arugula covered the pie, but I didn't have to separate salad and pie just to eat the damn thing. Anyway, the women agreed the taste was okay, if a bit bland. My neapolitan pie had a puffy crust, but none of the crispness you hope for from the woodfired oven. Beyond that, there were four basil leaves and four anchovies decorating what was basically a margherita pie. The parmaggiano promise by the menu was nowhere to be found either. The crust had the bland watery flavor I knew to expect, but there was something missing. Something only brought back by a morsel or two of anchovy: salt.

After hearing so much about the joint, I half expected the owner to come tell us we were eating the "real thing." He was present in the dining room and boisterous with the people he knew. In the end, I ate most of the pie wishing that a touch more of the owner's grandstanding had gone into the actual care and preparation of the food.

The final tab hovered in the mid-fifties, and we tipped the minimum. With inexperienced service and mediocre food, even reasonable prices won't pull us back in there any time soon.