Olivetto's > "Guess what you're having?"
I recognize, even as a mere spectator in the sport of restaurant ownership, that a menu is a key marketing tool. It's like a book cover for a restaurant, hung proudly (and, ideally, prominently) near the entrance to your establishment serving as a prime vehicle by which you lure patrons in. Maybe they’re looking for innovation, or maybe familiarity. A single ingredient may jump out at them, or the combination of a first and second course might be the key.
Once you’ve lured me in, I'll need to study the menu again and begin the sometimes agonizing decision over what the meal will consist of. This is where things went a bit haywire at Olivetto’s.
Some menus hinder rather than help this process. Instead of a path, they provide an obstacle course. It’s like sitting at dinner with someone who, while trying to tell you a basic story, routinely quotes obscure references in foreign languages (usually French). It leaves you feeling left out.
To be sure, the restaurant is gorgeous, the staff knowledgeable, enthusiastic, if in our case a tad too demanding of eye-contact. The food was slightly above what you would have expected from the menu description if – and this is a big if - you could have figured out what it was.
Much like Thomas Keller and his ilk, there seems to be a new trend toward quoting items on the menu. “Oysters and Pearls”, where the oysters are as-described, the Pearls are actually tapioca sabayon. I don’t know this because I am as smart or clever as Keller, I know this because he (unlike Olivetto) tells you what it is on the menu.
In our case, the menu was riddled with the original Italian ingredient names. Breasaola was easy enough because I’d had it before (air-dried beef), Tagliarini I’d heard of, but then there was a host of other items we all struggled with. Mosciame, Vellutata, bottarga di muggine, Trompetti, Mostaccioli al ragu, Gobetti, Radiatore, Strozzapreti, you get the idea.
I took the terms above in order, and did a search for each. To my surprise, there really wasn’t a quick way to define what this was. I was a bit hindered by my inability to speak Italian, so my results pages were limited to those in English.
For Mosciame, I could only find it within a recipe for a dish - “Fillet of Tuna with Scrambled Eggs”. Mosciame is cured tuna (salted and air-dried). I’m not sure why a definition for it wouldn’t fit somewhere on the menu. To avoid further confusion, I added an entry on Wiktionary for it.
"Vellutata" was close enough to velouté for me to make the leap.
"Bottarga" - Salted, dried fish roe, usually tuna… I’m sensing a theme here.
"Di Muggine" - Grey Mullet Roe. This is a case where wording on the menu helps sell the dish.
"Trompetti" lead me to finally conclude that the Italians are more than willing to make up new pasta names without batting an eye. I imagine that this, like many other items in Italian cuisine, is specific to a region and region seems to mean a single city block in some cases. Trompetti looks a bit like a corkscrew that went wrong.
"Mostaccioli" is a variant on Penne which also resembles the tip of a fountain pen, but holds the distinction of being smooth on the outside whereas Penne are “ribbed” (presumably for your pleasure.)
"Gobetti"? You guessed it – another pasta shape. Ribbed, hollow-tubed corkscrew.
I was just beginning to sense a pattern; items ending in an I tended to be pasta shapes. Nope. Too easy.
"Radiatore" – Certainly looks like a radiator. These actually have more “ridges” than noodle.
"Strozzapreti" – “Priest chokers” (Apparently only when one eats too many too fast). Ricotta, spinach, egg, Parmigiano-Reggiano, breadcrumbs, formed into dumplings.
"Bottarga di tonno" – There’s that word again, this time from tuna eggs.
Maybe I am, without meaning to, stripping the romance of discovery from this menu. The practical problem arises when the server approaches the table and asks, “Do you have any questions about the menu?” I had almost nothing BUT questions.
I’m not likely to have navigated this without a search engine. If there were only one or two things I didn’t understand, a quick description from the server could steer me one way or another. In this case, I had no choice but to sit there with a pen and writing notes about everything on the menu that is not explained. A menu is there to communicate, not obfuscate.
It’s not a game of food trivial pursuit or “guess what this is”. It has a profound role – a menu is there to help you decide what you are going to put in your body. I’ll admit, I take a less than a “spirulina and green tea” approach to my intake. A really well-made Martini is occasionally snuck through the velvet rope toward my gullet, though more rarely with increasing years. And, every now and then, I’ll try something really new. I do, however, ask that I understand what it is before I eat it. I’m even more insistent this when I’m PAYING for it.
It’s never fair to offer criticism without a solution, so I’ll offer mine. In this case, all of the “native tongue” items were in italics. For every italicized item, give a definition on the back of the menu. Or, at least temper your use of “quoted ingredients” with a set of parentheses (to explain what the hell you’re serving.)