Friday, 11 September 2009

When Restaurants Bite Back

I had one of the most incredible meals of my life at Trattoria San Giacomo in Bellagio, Italy last year. Although I must declare a vested interest in knowing the owners, it's safe to say that this didn't blur or soften my opinions: Aurelio Gandola is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy and if I hadn't loved everything I ate I would have told him so and he would have taken my views on board. But that's not necessary when the food is of such an amazing, elevated standard - I can still remember every mouthful now over a year later, and how many meals can you say that of? I wrote about it here:

Understandably then, I was extremely angry to hear that a couple of months back, Aurelio received a very nasty, threatening letter from someone purporting to be an 'Associate Food Editor' of the New York Times. Despite eating every mouthful and paying the bill without demur, a Mr Roy Kaluzshner and his wife considered their meal at Trattoria San Giacomo to be 'the worst of their life' and demanded a refund - on pain of spreading the word far and wide that the restaurant was to be avoided. All over a bill of €18.

Now as I've said, Aurelio is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy; he's also - for the record - generous, kind-hearted, decent, and devoted to his family and wife-to-be Sarah. Understandably he wasn't to be intimidated by a 25-year-old idiot Yank who believes that threatening to destroy a small business is an acceptable way of resolving dissatisfaction. He posted the letter, in its entirety, on the restaurant's website - and his own, open letter in response. I reproduce the exchange for you here, and urge you to share it with as many people as you can, other food bloggers, newspapers, websites, Facebook and so on, firstly so that people can see what kind of person Roy Kaluzshner is, and secondly to share this beautiful example of what happens when a restaurant bites back at the critics...

Open letter to my customers

I am writing this open letter in response to a complaint I received on 2nd July 2009 at my trattoria, San Giacomo in Bellagio on Lake Como. On this evening two customers came to my restaurant for dinner. They ordered a pasta of Tagliolini al Missoltino, a dried pasta served with local sundried lakefish and a grilled Lavarello with salad, another lakefish popular for its extremely delicate flavour. The customers finished both plates and after having eaten everything complained that the pasta was overcooked. Unfortunately as the pasta had been eaten I could not comment or taste it, however I did offer a dessert or Limoncello. These were turned down.After having paid the bill the customers left a note on the bottom of the bill: "Worst meal on a 2-week trip to Italy! My wife cried, and she is a chef!"

This reaction seems a little exaggerated but obviously there is little that one can do when the customer finishes the meal, pays the bill and leaves. The customers on the next table read this message and having paid their bill left another one for me. It reads: "The Carbonara was so tasty…my son cried with joy!" The next morning, our dissatisfied customer returned with another, much longer letter. Here is the transcription:

"To the Owner, Manager, Chef:I am writing this letter to you at 11:30pm, 1 hour after leaving your restaurant for THE WORST MEAL OF MY LIFE! My wife and I have been in Italy for the past 2 weeks (and have both been on this Earth for 25 years each), and we have literally never had a more disappointing meal than we had tonight at your restaurant. I have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but the meal actually made my wife cry because she wasn't able to eat it. Granted, she is a chef and has pretty high standards, but even I was disgusted at paying money for the food, and I don't even feel that way about McDonald's, Burger King, or the airplane pasta meal that Delta served me on the flight to Italy. My wife's dish ("homemade Tagliateli [sic] with a fish sauce") was extremely overcooked, had no taste of fish, and was probably not homemade, even though we were told that it was. My dish (fresh fish of the day) was not seasoned or salted at all, and was the most bland and tasteless thing I have tasted in this wonderful country. Even the olive oil was awful, and my wife and I have basically drowned our bread in olive oil at every other restaurant on this trip. The only redeeming qualities of the restaurant were the water, wine, bread, and service. We paid €15 for the wine, €2 for the water, €8 for the pasta and €10 for the fish…and we feel cheated for the €18 we spent on the food. We were even offered a free dessert/limòncelo and declined it because we were so desperate to escape the restaurant for some gelato. Our last night in Lake Como was ruined by your awful meal, and we request that you reimburse us for our food cost (18 euro = $25 us dollars).

You can mail us a check to: [address deleted] If we do not receive the check by July 15th, 2009, we will begin to post honest reviews of the restaurant on every website imaginable. Frommer's, Trip Advisor, Chowhound, Fodders,, etc. We will also write to all the publishers of the major travel books (Rick Steeves, Let's Go: Italy, Lonely Planet, etc), asking them to make sure that future tourists stay away from your restaurant! Not to mention, I am associate Food Editor at the NY Times, and will personally feature your restaurant in the "Tourist Traps: Avoid!" section of the Food Review. With over 1.5 million subscribers, I think it would be safe to say that the word would be out. Please consider my offer, and please improve the quality of your food! Food is a wonderful thing, and should never be served the way it was tonight. I only ate it to make my wife feel better and I regret not walking out after the first bite!

Your customer, Roy Kaluzshner"

I obviously have a copy of the original letter if anybody is interested in seeing it. Now, please let me explain a few things. My restaurant is actually a Trattoria, this is not the same thing. A trattoria serves very simple food that you would find on your plate at home, no fuss, no sauce, just the raw product cooked in the most basic way possible. A dish you could remake at home. Lavarello is a lakefish that is relatively bland compared to seafish, ask any local and they will confirm this. However, Bellagio is on Lake Como and this is a traditional dish that is served in everyone's home and also in nearly every restaurant on the Lake. We grill the fresh fish as it comes and serve it with a salad (no dressing) and leave the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper on the table for the customer to season as he or she wishes. I serve approximately 150 lavarello a week in my restaurant and my family has done for the past 35 years. This is the first complaint I have received for this particular dish.

At this point I would also like to point out that the olive oil in Italy firstly is not meant to go on the bread, but on the salad. As a consequence of many foreigners "drowning their bread in olive oil" many places now charge a cover charge. Do not be mistaken into thinking that olive oil is cheap because we live in Italy! The fact that many Italians ask me where this oil is produced so that they can buy it says enough to me. Dare I say that Italians may know best on this one? I do not charge a cover charge like most people, the Extra Virgin Olive Oil poured all over the customers' bread is done at my expense not theirs, so if they want a higher quality oil they should look for a "ristorante", not a trattoria. Missoltino on the other hand is a tradition only to Lake Como. The fish is called "agone" and the method of sundrying it in tins for 3 months creates a very salty flavour. It is certainly not a dish we recommend to everyone for its unusual and strong flavour. Actually to most foreign tourists we advise AGAINST it. This is a dish we serve mostly to the locals who are already familiar with the flavour. We serve our Missoltino with fresh tomato and dried tagliolini pasta. Nowhere on the menu does it state that this dish is served with fresh, homemade pasta. It strikes me as strange that the customer's wife who must be a fantastic chef does not know the difference between fresh and dried pasta. If she wanted fresh pasta she could have chosen from many other dishes on offer, like our fresh HOMEMADE fettuccine. Our customer actually removed the pieces of Missoltino and left them on the side of the plate and ate the pasta so the complaint about lack of fish and overcooked pasta simply does not stand. Again, without having been given the chance to taste for myself I do not know for sure. What I do know for sure is that if the pasta was overcooked and the customer had advised one of the waiters, I would have changed it.

How two 25 year olds can teach a trattoria that has been serving its locals for the past 35 years with the same dishes can possibly assume they know better is nothing short of absurd. My trattoria has a capacity of 30 people indoors and 12 outdoors. The next evening I had 29 locals sitting down for dinner. This speaks volumes, far more than two young Americans who think they know the Lake cuisine better than me. My mother is 70 years old and still cooks in the restaurant. I invite any future tourists to come and speak to any of my foreign and local customers to get the real story. I am Italian, from Bellagio and very proud of my work and trattoria. I do not accept lightly this kind of threat/ blackmail and am willing to take this matter further. I will pass on this letter to all of the named websites and guidebooks (the customer by the way has also underestimated these people, Rick Steve for example has eaten in my restaurant so he does not just advise people on hearsay). I will let people judge for themselves. My trattoria has appeared in many newspapers and guidebooks for a good reason. If this customer really is a food critic, I suggest he changes career. Apart from judging a restaurant on just two dishes, it is all too simple to complain and threaten people with no basis just to get a free dinner.

I, just like my customer have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but this is slander and I will not accept this kind of behaviour and repeat am happy to take this matter further if need be.I thank you for your time reading this letter and any feedback would be most gratefully received.

Yours, Aurelio Gandola, Trattoria San Giacomo


  1. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!
    Thank you!

  2. AMAZING!!! I will continue to spread this round - and be sure to make a trip here when in the area. BRAVO!

  3. Absolutely right! It is essential to stand up to such blackmail.

    Have you heard if there is anything new to add to the story a couple of months after you blogged this?

  4. Excellent, well done for standing up to them.

  5. In response to Josordoni, yes there is more to report; the complainer wrote furiously to the restaurateur about my post but when told that we had contacted the New York Times, hurriedly backed down - it would appear from extensive enquiries that any affiliation he had with that newspaper was a figment of his imagination! He did not go through with any of his threats.

    The wonderful Trattoria San Giacomo continues to thrive, and to turn out many servings of missoltino to happy locals night after night.

  6. A quick look on Google tells us a lot and that he's definately nothing to do with the NY Times. What an ass.

    Dave - a lover of Lake Como

  7. PS: I hope the Mount Sinai Medical Center is proud to have such an outstanding employee!!!


  8. I was so annoyed when I read about this donkey and his wife that I sent the following back to Aurelio.

    Dear Aurelio,

    Having read the piece on the web-site I feel compelled to comment, I hope you don’t mind.

    My partner and I have been to Bellagio twice now, and are planning another trip very soon. I can honestly say your Trattoria is one of reasons why we would return at all. Every single evening during our trips we have eaten at the Trattoria and have only ever been delighted by the food. A couple of dishes were absolutely outstanding – very memorable.

    You offer great authentic Italian food at a reasonable price in a super location.

    Do not be disheartened by this fraudster! He is not a food editor at the NY times – I think he works in a hospital in NY -

    Keep up the good cooking and we’ll see you later in the year.


  9. Fantastic letter Patrick and I couldn't agree more! I can't wait to get back to Bellagio and Trattoria San Giacomo myself. I still dream of that tagliata!

  10. Great response. I Also know this restaurant well, all I can say is I love the food, I love the restaurant, I love the man,enough said!


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