et peeves are personal by nature. They make waves at a gut level. Restaurant peeves develop over time and usually stick with you. It pains to report that some Italian restaurants — no matter how fine their food — manage to unhinge diner patience to the point of ruining the experience of guests who don’t know what hit them. My own patience is limited. To me, a reputation for good food is blunted by an unpleasant atmosphere.
Collected here is a brief list of no-no’s that can drive restaurant-lovers away, sometimes for good.
The acchiappino: In tourist-jammed cities (Rome, Florence and Venice) a hawker is often added to the payroll to reel in passers-by. He’s known as an acchiappino, a “customer catcher.” You’ve seen his kind standing outside the entrance waving a menu and flirtatiously trying to lure you in using any means necessary (“Good morning, bonjour, guten tag, hola…pasta-pizza-tiramisu?”) Anyplace that needs someone to convince me to enter isn’t worth my money. Arrivederci.
Food photos: Plastic menus usually mean food photos. And they’re usually a recipe for disappointment. The exception is fast food eateries, especially places that serve foods unfamiliar to foreign diners. Still, using photos seems “cheap” unless they’re a cultural staple, as in Japan. Better to train the wait staff to explain a dish rather than relying on a faded print of last year’s Fiorentina.
The digital world gets some slack on this one.
Food displays: These are worse than photos and are usually on platters near the entrance. They can include congealed cheese or five-hour old pizza (with pigeons feeding on them). I run from these displays. Fast.I have the same reaction to the sight of spaghetti with caked sauce sitting on tablecloths outside.
If these displays are intended to attract diners, they fail, and so does ownership. In fact, displays are just plain sad.
Badly translated menus: Instead of enlisting translators, restaurants owners all too often use online tools to translate their dish names, which saves them money but can make for howling embarrassment. But this kind of involuntary hilarity does little for credibility. The comedy undermines quality and professionalism. Customers may be entertained but not reassured by being offered “breast in the raspberry melting.” Would you order a “salmon to the vapor” or a “Lamb hammer in the gutter”?
Non-seasonal menus: I’ve been spotted eating artichokes out of season, and I am not proud of it. But if a restaurant or pizzeria choose to serve outrageously out-of-season foods, it’s clear they couldn’t care less about quality and recklessly introduce ingredients that will ultimately have little if any flavor. Think “fresh” tomato and grilled eggplant pizza — in January. Equally disappointing is finding tortellini with heavy cream and peas on a summer menu. Stay seasonal, or stay hungry.
Bad attitude: Waiters in Italian restaurants do not pocket the full tip from each table they serve. Nor do they depend on gratuities. Instead, most receive a decent wage, often work under a contract with benefits and a paid vacation. Many smaller eateries are family-owned and staffed. A North American-style percentage tip is obviously welcome, but not expected. Customers do leave tips as a sign of gratitude for exceptional service (many round off the bill to the nearest €5 or €10.) When this happens, ownership collects the cash, which is then divvied up among the entire wait staff.
This means you won’t see servers hovering over you asking if everything’s all right.
Maybe for this reason, waiters can be terribly rude. Or lazy. If your server doesn’t know the daily special or is unclear on which wine to pair with your order, plunks plates in front of you, and in general shows little or no enthusiasm, your evening is unlikely to be a hit. Sure, the waiter may be having a bad day, or hate his job, but his attitude could rub off on not only your dining but your overall stay. That’s unacceptable, and makes me crazy.
Ugly toilets: Poorly-equipped and unclean restrooms can break even the best restaurants. Italian law now bans the so-called bagno alla turca, the once-common hole in the pavement with a porcelain squatter.
But if the bathroom smells of urine, there’s more toilet paper on the wet floor than on the rolls (if the rolls have any at all), proprietors are actively pushing away customers. Remember, word of mouth travels fast and bad reviews move at warp speed.
The tyrannical check: The words servizio incluso, coperto, and tassa make an inevitable appearance on Italian restaurant bills. The cover charge (coperto) can’t be dodged even if you refuse amenities such as bread. There’s a reason for this.
The coperto adds management expenses (laundry, delivery service, taxes, and so on) without upping the price of individual dishes.
Some reckless restaurateurs go too as far as to add mysterious “tourist taxes” and “service” charges to tables occupied by non-Italians. This kind of exploitative mark-up (which can run 10-to-20 percent) usually goes on in larger touristy places.
If you don’t understand something on the bill (conto), ask for an explanation.
A note on goodbyes: Arrivederci is fair enough, but some establishments are smart enough to add an invitation to return. This can take the form of a piece of chocolate, sweet biscuits, or a shot of amaro on the house. Some may lift the price of a cup of espresso.
Gratitude and good manners can stop peeves in their tracks.