Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Consumer activists will tell you, when you have an issue with a purchase and are getting nowhere resolving the dispute with the staff, you should go up the food chain until you get satisfaction. The only person you want to talk with is the one who will tell you “Yes”, and make you happy by working out the problem. This is usually successful in civilized society, if only because businesses have come to understand their PR can make or break them.

Unless you’re in Cranston, Rhode Island and happen to wander into Tony Papa’s Italian Restaurant  half an hour before closing.  On that evening, you have entered The Twilight Zone.

I’d worked up a world class craving for humble pasta and meatballs in red sauce, with a little salad.
It's the easiest thing to prepare, and fortunately easy to find on their menu. When the waiter brought our Chianti, we said we were ready to order. I pointed to the section of the menu that says FAVORITE ITALIAN DINNERS. There are three, one of which is Meatballs...Nestled into Your Choice of Pasta. The notation immediately below says “All Italian Dinners include Your Choice of Salad or Pasta or Daily Potato and Vegetable” Perfect! I opted for the salad and the vegetable, and settled back to anticipate Italian heaven. Wrong.
   “You can’t do that,” the waiter said.
   “Why not?”
   “Because you can’t have a salad and pasta.”
   “Why not?”
   “Because it says salad or pasta.”
   “That’s if you’re ordering it as an accompaniment. According to the menu, if I wanted to, I could actually order even more Pasta instead of the Salad or Daily Potato, along with a Vegetable,” I explained as I ran a finger along the lines to show him, word for word, in case he was new to the job or hadn’t read the menu in awhile or couldn’t read at all. “But all I really want is the salad.”
   “No. Not both.”
   “What’re you, my mother?” I said with the sweetest smile I could muster. Proximity to spaghetti brings out the Italian in me, and that can mean zero-to-sixty sarcasm that morphs into Neopolitan super-bitchiness. It’s a gift.
   “Sorry, no.”
   “Is the owner here?” I asked.
    “Yes, he is.” 
    “I’d like to talk with him, please.”
   The waiter returned soon: “The bartender says you’re wrong.”
   “Is the bartender the owner?” I peeled off my sweater, it was getting hot in there.
   “Then let me talk with the owner.”
As I waited, I knocked down the rest of the wine, and the owner finally emerged from the kitchen. A formidable, dark-haired man, more wary than friendly, wafting a scent reminiscent of a pet I once owned - a goat. As I apologized for taking his time, took a deep breath and patiently explained again (yes I did, it’s something I picked up - and couldn’t shake off - from living in Canada), he feigned interest in the menu. When my lips stopped moving, he answered.
   “No. Only the vegetable.”
   “But why? It says…” and I read it again with a lot of Pleeeeese, massa Tony!  in my voice, my pasta-and-salad craving now through the roof.  
   “Right,” he said firmly. He’d had to agree with me, and now I knew I had him. “So?”
   (Long pause)
   “The menu’s wrong.”
At that point, I think you'll agree ordering anything at all would have been a bad idea. We paid and left…with a copy of the menu, which you see above, as a souvenir of the complete breakdown of customer service. Later, online, I found another damning review of the same restaurant from a diner who had been a frequent customer and had brought many family members there. One fateful night he’d ordered the swordfish, told the server it was dry, and watched in disbelief as the owner sat down next to him, told him he was wrong and that he wasn’t going to prepare another one, and maybe wouldn’t prepare him anything else at all.
Please don’t confuse this dictatorial, insensitive, cold, short-sighted stupidity with the amusing, fictional "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld. What’s happening at this insignificant little eatery in Cranston, Rhode Island is sadly representative of the downward spiral of real American customer service. It says: Stay Or Go, We Don’t Care.
I WENT. I do care. Fortunately a really great Italian restaurant, Sogno’s, is right down the street and happily awaiting new diners that Tony Papa’s ungratefully place-kicks out of its customer base.


  1. This isn't he U.S. I remember. I admit it's been a little while since I've crossed south of the boarder but am quite surprised at this owners attitude. You would think with a dwindling consumer base (due to economic hard times), owners would be happy to please all customers reasonable requests (especially if its on dam the menu). In short time with service like that, he too will be nothing more than a statistic and be washing dishes at the restaurant down the street trying to figure out what he did wrong.

  2. Ha! Bringing me right back to my days in the southern New England during the mid-90's, coincidentally the height of my Headline News viewing.

    I was working at Foxwoods Casino then as hotel mananger, and I recall vividly how my VP and I would ponder the undeniable decline in overall customer service across many sectors. I wonder now, maybe it was being immersed in that region that influenced our collective awareness.

    Well, I did meet some of the the most engaging and amazing people in my life during those years, including some of the many Greeks who owned, of all things, pizza joints--something unique throughout the area. And I had countless memorable experiences of the gastronomical kind throughout Rhode Island. Mmwah!

    I'm pretty OK believing that the Cranston encounter could have happened in Anwheres, USA, and not 100% indicative of the area. We just never know what we'll find when overturning a rock, in this case, a plate, do we? Mamma mia!

  3. Small businesses, especially restaurants, are having a hard enough time, now. I fear losing the best local BBQ restaurant near my home, Cafe Pig in Peachtree City, GA. Best banana pudding I've ever tasted or made. I can't duplicate that recipe no matter how many times I've tried. Tony won't have to argue with customers for much longer.

  4. Reminds me of the last time I patronised our only neighbourhood restaurant. The beer in their advertised "beer and a burger" special came in a very small wine glass.