Saturday, March 31, 2012

No. 796 – Last One

Performer: Days of the New
Songwriters: Travis Meeks, Todd Whitener
Original Release: Days of the New (II)
Year: 1999
Definitive Version: None

When the time came to apply for The Grump’s restaurant reviewing job in 1999, as I mentioned, I was ready—or at least I thought I was. While granting that I didn’t have a lot of writing experience, I had a couple of solid Dispatch bylines in the business section. And I had The Grump in my corner. You would think a legend at a newspaper who had a hand-picked successor would get some benefit of the doubt. But newspapers are like any other media business: You mean nothing except at the time of your employment. The Grump had no pull whatsoever.

So I was made to go through the same process as the other schlubs who wanted the gig. Fine, I’ll earn it the hard way. As I said, they can either hire the right person for the job, or they can hire someone besides me. I was given a specific restaurant to review—the same one as everyone else. The choice was Del Matto’s. I suspect that this was because the features editor knew it. Heck, everyone knew it. It had been around for some 40 years by this time.

Debbie had grown up close to it, and we’d driven by it dozens of times while visiting her mom or going to one of our favorite restaurants, which was just a few blocks down from Del Matto’s—Butch’s Italian Kitchen (now closed)—but neither of us had ever been to Del Matto’s. We both were game to try something new.

As you might suspect from the name and the age: It’s Italian—red sauce Italian, not a lot of imagination and heavy on the old-school accents. I would bet that when it opened, it was the place to see and be seen on the East Side, and I would double-down that the décor and menu hadn’t changed substantially—if at all—since.

The assignment was this: Visit once and write a review as if you were going to review it for real. Well, I cheated. I went twice—once on my own dime. I wanted to sample as much of the menu as I could, and I figured it would look bad to order six entrees at one sitting.

The thing about restaurants is that almost no matter where you go, unless the place is a total dump, you can find something on the menu that’s decent. That’s the way Del Matto’s was. The tomato-based pasta was fine, nothing special, and the veal, again, was decent, not dry but fairly bland. The chicken parmesan was good and tender though. And the relative lack of spicing was no big deal, because they give you the requisites on request: Parmesan, red pepper flakes, oregano. You can spike up your dish however you like it.

There were probably a dozen Italian restaurants in town that were better, but, you know, not everyone is a foodie. In fact, my tastes were probably more exotic than those of most of my would-be readers. A restaurant that has stayed open for 40 years has by definition found an audience, and that’s not to be trivialized. Obviously it appeals to enough customers to stay in business in what is an extremely cut-throat industry. What’s wrong with saying something to customers who might want to try Del Matto’s?

So I wrote up a fair assessment: not the best Italian place in town but not without its charms. I wrote about the whole experience: the service, the décor, the Sinatra on the p.a. It all worked together if old-school Italian was what you were looking for. In other words, it served its niche well.

My approach went over like the Titanic. The editor liked my writing style but really wanted me to write more about the food, like I was some Emeril wannabe. Well, real folks go to restaurants, too, and if they don’t know the difference between anise and cumin anyway, why bother weighing them down with wasted details? Is the place good or not and what’s it like if you go?

But after they made their hire, I began to smell a rat: They never intended to hire me—or anyone else from the paper, for that matter. The guy they hired had been reviewing for the suburban papers for more than a decade and had acquired a reputation as something a hard-core foodie … who couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag if he had Shakespeare holding the map. Grump said the guy, whom I think I had met once, wrote like a lawyer (his vocation—reviewing restaurants was his avocation). Who wants to read that in a newspaper?

Apparently the poobahs did. It turns out The Dispatch folk didn’t really care about the guy’s writing ability and perhaps not even his foodie kitchen skill of dissecting flavors and ingredients. Instead, it appears they just wanted the known commodity.

Well, that was the final straw as far as I was concerned. This was no longer about karma for reneging on the sports gig. It was clear that there was no future for me at the Big D and that I was spinning my wheels here after 5 years.

Unfortunately, with a mortgage and girlfriend who was committed to being in Columbus as long as her mother was around, I couldn’t just pack up and find a gig in another city. When it comes to working for newspapers in a particular city, you typically had two options: Take it or leave it.

I took it, and overslept my way through my depression for most of the next two months.

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