This past week I’ve been frantically trying to get in some last minute preparations before leaving for my trip to Europe, but I got a good taste of what I’m probably going to encounter when I get there- right around the corner in the Lower East Side!
Luca and I decided to eat lunch at a very authentic Italian spot owned by a woman from Milan. It’s so authentic that they aren’t open on Sundays and close every weekday at 7 PM on the dot – a reason that we rarely visit even though it’s only three blocks away.
I decided to order a simple mozzarella-tomato-basil panino, and as our waitress was setting down the food, I asked if she could bring me a bottle of balsamic vinegar.
A few minutes later the owner was towering over our table.
“Who asked for balsamic? What are you going to do it with it?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Oh, I’d just like to add some to my panino,” I replied, smiling politely.
“We don’t change our recipe,” she said, clearly very offended.
Of course I tried to reason with her, to explain that I was not asking her to change anything, merely to give me the option of balsamic vinegar on the side. Even Luca jumped in on my behalf, but his friendly Torinese accent was of no use. She would not budge on the principle that her recipe was her recipe, and no one was allowed to change or pollute it.
Naturally, I stewed in American-customer self righteousness after her refusal. Didn’t she understand that the customer is always right? I threatened loudly to Luca that I’d just go home and grab a bottle of balsamic and bring it back. I told him, “Well, if they are going to be so Italian, let’s be Italian too and not leave a tip!” Of course Luca was surprised that he had been caught off guard byt the owner’s reaction. Back when he lived in Italy he never would have thought that asking for something extra was normal.
I’ve always said that the biggest negative I experience in my travels to Europe- and specifically Italy, where I’ve traveled the most- is the customer service. Waiters and restaurant owners are frequently crabby and act like they are doing you a favor to let you sit in their restaurant and eat their food. They raise their eyebrows and make fun of you if you ask to add an extra topping to a pizza or want to bring home leftovers. They make you pay extra for sitting down instead of standing at the counter. And don’t even mention the word vegetarian, which is normally greeted with confusion, scorn, or both.
This normally frustrates me because it seems not only rude, but also like purely bad business practice that weakens Italian/European businesses and puts them at a disadvantage compared to the more flexible American model. Why not let people sit down for free if it’s not busy (and it rarely is)? They might linger and buy more from your cafe. If you allow customers a bit of freedom to choose toppings or get something on the side, the dish might be more to their liking and they’d return to eat more often. At the very least, a pleasurable dining experience wouldn’t drive customers away.
But, the reason I found the balsamic incident so interesting is because it also frames a sort of hypocritical impulse surrounding Italian business in general. On the one hand, we value Italy so highly for its supposed steadfast adherence to long-held traditions and its vaunted attention to quality and technique. It’s what millions of visitors look forward to when they plan a trip there or even when foreigners buy Italian products likes clothing and food at home. So, on one side, the impulse is to promote tradition and authenticity as the soul of Italian industry, a strength upon which Italians can draw from to bolster their economy.
But what happens when tradition seems to be simply bad business practice? Many political commentators push to propel Italy into the 21st century, recommending it streamline regulations, get rid of inefficient practices, and follow examples from other countries that would free Italian business and tourism to shine. But the problem is, many of the irregularities in Italian business may be just what protects that valued tradition.
How to disentangle it? To me, the owner’s reaction to my request for balsamic was simply bad business. Why should I return to her restaurant if I could get balsamic happily handed to me at any other place in New York? To her, she was protecting her tradition and the quality of the product she had prepared.Who was I to mess with her perfectly calibrated sandwich?
So, what about when I bit into my panino? Well, I can’t say I wouldn’t have relished soaking it in a tub of balsamic vinegar like a greedy American anyway – ha ha. But, yes, it was truly delicious just the way her recipe had ordained it.
Does the Italian way of doing business have something to teach us after all? Was I in some way polluting it by suggesting to change the recipe? Do some of the recommendations for Italians to ‘get with the program’ even represent a threat to Italian tradition and quality – and could thus undermine it?
Let me know your thoughts! And also, because I’d love to commiserate, tell me about your worst dining experience in Europe!