words and knives

When I woke up last Thursday morning, I knew it was going to be a bad day.   I’ve developed  a sixth sense in the past few years. A look at the morning emails began to validate my fears.

While having lunch with my trusty lunch companion Dana, I received a phone call from AJC dining critic John Kessler, who was inquiring about the new pizza oven at Fritti. Having eaten there twice since its installation, he was not happy with our product and was going to blog about it.

Yep, bad day…no doubt.

I was taken back by this.  John reviewed Sotto Sotto 12 years ago when we opened. He has been eating at my restaurants ever since. He has interviewed me on several occasions. I have always respected his opinion, especially since he expanded my cooking knowledge by introducing me to the concept of Umami: a fundamental flavor component I had never heard of.

The new oven has been a great success. The wood consumption is 1/3 of what it used to be, saving money and greenhouse emissions. I’ve been happy with the vast majority of the 90 or so pizzas I have tried. I’ve not heard of any customer complaints, directly or from servers. Yelp, open table, and reward network ratings are very good. Sales are up 12% over last year, and that was already a great year.

John tells me he ate the pizza twice and found it exceedingly soft in structure, without a wisp of crispness, “like sandwich bread.” I began to ask questions about his experience. Both times he ate the pizza it was in the early part of the evening…mmmm….could be an issue with the dough, likely under or over-proofing.

During a discussion that to an outsider had to sound like a married couple arguing about sleeping with the neighbor, Massimo, the pizzaiolo, assures me that he has paid a lot of attention to the proofing of the dough, “I do not why he no liked the pizza, maybe he just not like the way I make pizza”…

Looks like we’re not going to figure this out today, so I call John back and explain to him that I have no idea why the pizza was too soft. Either a user error on our part and it did not come out how it should or, like Massimo said, “you just no like the way we make it.” The only way to truly find out would be for us to eat one together and figure it out. John understandably denies my request, but promises to come back and try it again.

I guess you can’t win them all…

I walk into Escorpion the next day and notice Christiane Lauterbach at the bar chatting amicably with mixologist Adam Fox. I say hello and Christiane muses in her classic French accent: ” ho ho ho,  I see you are debating pizza with John…he, he, he, you are a one man debate team Riccardo…” Christiane has never been a fan of Fritti, and I remember having to keep my opening pizzaiolo Salvatore, from running out into the dining room and arguing with her ten years ago. “I want to know what she know about pizza. If she know about pizza, I say ok, u know about pizza, u can tell me about pizza… I make pizza since I was 12 years old, my grandfather make pizza, my father make pizza….”  ” Yo, just go back to the oven and shut up would you…”

I click to the blog and stare in horror. Likely because of the noise in the restaurant at the time of our conversation, John somehow interpreted my ‘user error’ comment as me telling him he was in error, that he did not know what he was talking about. He feels dissed as any dissatisfied customer who, after lodging a complaint, got attitude instead of reassurance. To his side come the readers that sympathize. In their eyes I’m the restaurant owner that is insensitive to his customers. They will keep driving, they wish I would go out of business, “go back to where you came from!”

What happened?  My theory is this:

In this computer age, a user error is usually committed by the end user, the computer user. When I mentioned user error, John assumed I was referring to him, the end “user”. Had I said ” we either made a mistake and did not make the pizza properly or “you just no like the pizza,” this could have been avoided.

Lesson learned: “Choose your words carefully, for words are sharper than knives.”

Ouch!

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About Riccardo Ullio

Chef/Owner of U Restaurants, including Sotto Sotto, Fritti and Escorpion
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24 Responses to words and knives

  1. Gregg Bauer says:

    Good blog and good advice. Love Frittis and it’s been too long since I’ve eaten there.
    Gregg

  2. Kasia Palmaka says:

    Congratulations Ricardo! Excellent 1st bog. I enjoyed my researched on Unami, but even more so, as a neighbor & Mossimo fan, I look forward to my Fritti pizza weekly. Thank you for the new oven & for your fabulous staff who when combined allow my Fritti experience to be consistently fabulous every week. See you this weekend!!!

    ~ Kasia

  3. Nino Spahic says:

    Just ate there about three weeks ago and pizza was great. Fritti is not only about pizza, it is about you, your personal appeal to masses, the great job you have been doing for the past decade and what you have done for the culinary Atlanta. I wouldn’t worry about food critics, although I know that as a business owner you have to do that. Food critics are primadonnas who are overly used to royal treatment in the restaurants because they know they can get it – restaurant owners are afraid of them. I quit reading all restaurant review articles after a well known ATL critic (not gonna name her) said that she did not like a restaurant because it played Euro trash music. When I wrote to her asking for an explanation, she replied with the lack of basic knowledge about music. Most critics don’t write intelligent and analytical articles about food, they write about their own feelings instead because mom or dad hurt their feelings at some point in their life and they need to take it out on someone. So, go back to my first two sentences, that is all anyone needs to know about you, your food and service.

  4. Jami Fogle says:

    Riccardo, Happy First Day of Summer per your post 6/21/11! How apropos since you’re going greener!

    The best takeaway from your blog is that you have implemented a way to go greener and lower your costs as a business owner. I’m guessing the new oven may also be a little easier on your AC/GA Power bill…? With your outdoor patio, the costs associated with running your AC are no laughing matter in Atlanta’s heat. Going green, in and of itself, deserves accolades.

    About the “user error” comment, I tip my hat to you for seeing both sides. Takes great skill and gumption to understand more than one/your own version of any given situation.

    Restaurants open their doors every day in hopes of pleasing people.

    As long as people are willing to listen to the feedback of others, there will always be a need for food critics. I believe the hardest part about the job is writing anything bad. I would find this job extremely difficult because defining restaurant quality for the masses is extremely difficult. As general good food advocates, we are heavy critics wherever we go and eat, but we try to create our own happiness and go in without any preconceived notions or expectations. Only if our onsite experience/happiness is chipped away slowly do we decide that we need to re-think the restaurant and experience.

    In the case of a critic, I wonder if they have to go in with a highly critical hat. I assure you that that is a task I would never want to endure. I like to approach every restaurant as if it’s family. So, if we have to make room for critics who write for the masses, I think we should all be grateful that that is not our job…after all, I prefer to walk into a restaurant known/unknown with the attitude that I will enjoy the food.

    Regarding food critics like Kessler and Lauterbach, a broad perspective for consideration:
    They have a responsibility to write for the masses like any and all journalists. Like most honorable people, they take their job seriously, and I imagine with current free online feedback systems like Yelp, etc, their input and write-ups as journalists may be threatened. So, per a previous response, let’s not kick the old school folks for their procedures. We just have to hope that they have as much overall perspective and conflict resolution/recovery as you/Riccardo for the “user error” misinterpretation.

    Fritti will always be a staple in our home, especially so now because of your greener pizza oven.

    Way to go, Riccardo.

  5. Nicolas Bour says:

    Great first post and good to have an outlet for your stress. Our job is not easy, pleasing both the masses and the critics, especially as the line between the two has been blurred. Looking forward to you coming to visit us in San Diego (gods country). :)

  6. John K says:

    Cool, Riccardo, thanks a lot! And I really didn’t mean to misquote you….but….I think you were making the not unreasonable suggestion that my expectations for the crust differed from your (and your pizzaiolo’s) intent. It does happen all the time, particularly in the case of Americans tasting a more traditional style Neapolitan pizza. Alan Richman, Peter Reinhart and others have written quite a bit about this. I was saying that I don’t think you personally would have been happy with the pizzas we were served. And you haven’t responded to my (perhaps erroneous) suggestions that the new hydration of the dough may be a problem and that the humidity and outdoor seating might make the crusts grow soggy as they cooled. I’ll cross post on your blog. Respect, brah…

    • I tried a pizza around the same time you did the next day and I was not pleased with the texture either, so you were absolutely right about the less than pleasant texture. I agree that the humidity could cause the pizza to get gummy as it cools, just like fresh baked bread does. Pizza must be eaten quickly after it comes out of the oven, before it cools. In Italy, all talking stops when the pizza comes to the table. However, the humidity is not the only problem. Remember when I told you we were working on the hydration of the dough? The dough we were using was always really good for lunch and late night when I would taste it, but a lesser product at different times. We are working on the issue and will be blogging about it, also in the context of authenticity. Could you send me some info on Alan Richman and Peter Reinheart?

      Thank you

  7. Shawn Brown says:

    Very interesting post Riccardo. I must say, eating at Fritti nearly every time I come into town, now about once every two weeks, I too noticed a difference, the same difference JK noted, with the dough/crust. That said, both versions were delicious, but I prefer the slightly crispier crust produced by the old oven (or different dough, I’m certainly no expert).

    Of course, none of this will stop me from coming back and feasting on the best pizza in Atlanta/Georgia/the South/Eastern Seaboard!

    Long live Quattro Formaggi!

    Shawn

  8. Kiran Bindra says:

    Critics come and go. Great concepts, awesome food and hundreds of foodie fans … are all here to stay! Love your restaurants. Escorpion is brilliant! Looking forward to coming back again ….

    Cheers,
    Kiran Bindra

  9. Bill Bounds says:

    Well, SueSue and I are out here in Dallas and haven’t as yet found the equivalent pizza. After we moved into Dana’s house, we found ourselves going to Fritti around 2 or 3:00 p.m. almost every Saturday for Regina Margarita, arugula salad, and a bottle of Gavi (thanks to your rec). It was always a great treat. And when I’m occasionally in Atlanta these days, Fritti is always a necessary stop. You, your pizzas, and lemon chicken are a great asset to the ATL.
    I also have to say that when we first came to Atlanta in 1992 it was a foodie Siberia. I think that the greatest factor in the blossoming of Atlanta restaurant was the perceptive and insightful critiques that John Kessler wrote. I wish that he would move to Dallas. Atlanta is so lucky to have someone of his caliber writing about food.
    I sure miss the two of you.
    Long may you roam.
    best,
    bill

  10. krista smiley says:

    i love your Funghi Di Bosco pizza! keep it coming :)

  11. Kit says:

    Love it, bro. Good to hear a voice from the other side. It’s been a one way street for way too long. I had a few pies from the new oven, it passed my test. Good stuff.

  12. Jori says:

    Great 1st blog post!!!! Wishing you tons of success!

  13. Claudio Bianchi-Fossati says:

    I definitely think Americans like their pizza crispy (what sometimes they refer to as NY style), although the whole Chicago style goes in the opposite direction! From my perspective, I like it crispy or soft as long as the ingredients are good and the dough is not too thick and filling.

    I am no pizza expert, but I think the real Neapolitan pizza is supposed to be softer than the NY style, to the point that it may taste weird to Americans. I tried the pizza at Fritti a few months ago (before the new oven – I am due another visit soon actually!) and I noticed the pizza was already softer than I remembered from years prior. And it was excellent, tasted like the ones I had in Naples last year. Not too much cheese and not too much garlic like they do in other pizza places :-(

    Riccardo in bocca al lupo e ci vediamo presto (io sono quello di Peschiera Borromeo, non troppo lontano da te :-) ).

    Ciao,
    Claudio

  14. The humidity could definitely be the culprit. I’ve heard of it affecting all kinds of dough, especially in the sticky south!

  15. Riccardo:

    As usual, I’m salivating just imagining the pizza at Fritti. Shoot, now I’m daydreaming about Sotto Sotto. Please stop messing with my head! Culinary lust for your dishes gets me again!

  16. Ivano says:

    Pizza request – Porcini and Prosciutto. Word.

  17. HookedonPolo says:

    Responsa:
    Food bloggers are merely there to provide entertaining commentary and then we decide if it merits a response, either we simply go form an opinion of our own based on experience or we base our deduction on the cumulative feedback from a community of experts.

  18. eugenio casciaro says:

    Good blog…I would have to say some of it is preference…coming from italian family mom would make it a bit softer when I preferred and bit of crispness to my crust and center…I think the pizza at fritti is rocking with flavor and great ingredients when I have some left over I put the grill on low and throw it on….and it comes out damn good..so tell your waiter how you would prefer it …you do it with a steak why not pizza…and as far as choosing your words wisely I’m sure you won’t make that mistake twice….and I will keep fritti on the top of the list

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    Whenever I at first commented I clicked on the Notify me when new comments are added checkbox and currently each and every time a comment is added I receive 4 email messages with the identical comment.

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