A Tale of Two Italians

I had the not-so-rare opportunity to eat at two Italian restaurants on consecutive nights this past weekend. This is how it went down…

It was Friday night when the wife and I decided to jaunt across the street in the middle of a rain storm to try Le Castagne. You may remember us attempting a similar feat last month around Valentine’s Day, but the restaurant was closed for a private function and we ended up at Mercato.

This time, we were immediately seated in the front of the restaurant. The first thing that struck me was the somewhat odd layout and decor. I’m convinced this space was not originally intended to be a restaurant, as the ceiling was way too high and the furnishings way too portable to only function as an eatery. It gives off more of a gallery or function hall vibe, rather than a destination for intimidate dinner conversation.

Regardless, we took our seats and ordered a couple glasses of wine from the extensive wine list. The bread, freshly baked, was accompanied by a sun dried tomato pesto and was a perfectly chewy way to begin the meal. We decided to share a salad – the insalata alla gorgonzola – which the waiter graciously split between two plates. The standard mix included greens, tomatoes, gorgonzola, candied walnuts and a nicely balanced vinaigrette dressing.

Although the specials sounded delicious, we were both in the mood for pasta and went full force on the carbs. I ordered the pappardelle bolognese and my wife, the gnocchi di patate alla sorrentina. Both were excellently prepared.

We concluded our night without any dessert, but a small sense of accomplishment that we had finally conquered the restaurant mere feet away from our apartment. Le Castagne was a good restaurant, though we still prefer the more intimate (and cheaper) appeals of our neighborhood BYOBs.

“A step up from the Olive Garden” is the way my friend described the White Plains (NY) restaurant Zanaro’s. So I didn’t exactly walk in with much confidence.

Unfortunately, the place more than lived up to its reputation with a typical assortment of Italian-American cliches in menu, decor and service.

But before I get to bashing the place, I will first say that we had a great time. It was my friend’s 30th birthday party and it wouldn’t have mattered if we were at the real Olive Garden. We ate, we drank and we were merry… that is, when we weren’t fending off a waiter that was aggressively up-selling us at every turn.

Honestly, I think it was the waiter more than any other factor that dragged this place down. The food was decent – as good as can be expected from a place that is proud to serve “the finest Barilla pasta” – if uninspired and the prices were surprisingly low for the prime real estate the restaurant was eating up. But, man, that waiter!

Let’s begin with the bottled water. I know that offering a choice of bottled or tap water is the latest rage in bilking customers for every penny, but this was just obnoxious. Not only did the guy not offer tap water, he approached the first of us with a big bottle, readying his knife to cut away the plastic covering. When my friend wisely spoke up to reject the bottle, the waiter gave her the nastiest look I’ve seen in a while. As we all chimed up for tap water, his face melted into confusion.

Our wine selection was accompanied by further amazement. While we did order a Merlot, he brought a more expensive bottle than we ordered, and then claimed ignorance when we confronted him. Instead of apologizing, he retorted that we would like this wine better. Since it was only a few bucks more, I acquiesced, but it made me feel like dirt.

I felt even worse when I got back to Philly. It turned out that my wife had gotten the same bottle of wine while I was away. Her price – $9. Our price – $33.

Is that considered a mark-up or straight robbery? Because I’m achingly suspicious that it’s the latter.

Who knew I had to go all the way to one of the richest counties in the US to get robbed?


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