In the restaurant business, as in life, there are several ways to deal with criticism that comes your way.
A. You can ignore it, whether you agree with it or not, in which case things will never get better. (And will most likely get worse.)
B. You can get all high and mighty about it, either disagreeing with the comments or defending yourself against them, in which case things will never get better.
C. Or you can actually listen to what people have to say — acknowledge the shortcomings, be grateful customers are willing to share their honest feedback and dig in to make things better.
Ristorante Abruzzi has chosen the latter.
When the new restaurant run by Charleston Bread owners Mark and Libby Chatfield first moved into the space vacated by Paterno’s at the Park in downtown Charleston earlier this year, there was a groundswell of goodwill — and initial good reviews — from customers happy that a new business moved in so quickly.
Then, things started to change.
Service has always been strong, but suddenly we started hearing from customers who were less keen on the food coming out of the kitchen.
The food is bland ... It’s no Paterno’s ... How can an Italian place mess up spaghetti and meatballs?
“Yep, we’ve heard that last one quite a bit,” Mark acknowledged when I recently sat down with him at the restaurant to chat about its future. “And you know what? They’re right.”
Wait, what? A restaurant owner actually admitting his negative reviews are deserved?
“Yes, we have struggled,” he told me. “Absolutely.”
He went on to say that the initial chef they hired ended up not being a good fit in the kitchen and that running a restaurant was proving to be a lot — like, a whole lot — more difficult than he ever imagined.
And that spaghetti comment? They own that one, too, admitting they’ve had a difficult time trying to serve their fresh-made pasta with the quality and consistency they want.
But instead of throwing their hands up in despair, the Chatfields jumped in to make changes. Big scary changes, but ones they feel were necessary for the restaurant to succeed.
They’ve hired a new chef they’re really excited about. They brought in a guy who helped them find a better way to cook their pasta to order. They’re changing up the menu to better showcase their strengths and add more price points, including new “family style” dining options and themed food nights.
I could tell Mark and Libby were a little weary from the past few months, but both still had a gleam in their eye when talking about the future. I share their optimism as well.
While my visits so far have uncovered equal amounts of very good and very so-so dishes, all of the shortcomings I’ve tasted are easy to overcome.
I’ve enjoyed a richly satisfying Campanelle pasta with house-smoked salmon in a cream sauce with shallots and capers. I loved the chopped salad of Romaine tossed with bacon, tomato, grilled red onion, feta, corn and avocado in creamy caper dressing served with a slice of fresh Charleston Bread.
I have a hunch they do a really nice job with pizza and other entrees I haven’t tried yet (braised red snapper with sautéed greens and fried polenta, baked chicken with olives and roasted tomatoes in Gorgonzola cream, eggplant Parmesan and Lasagna Bolognese) all sound wonderful.
But while the marinara sauce on the meatball I tried was delicious and mildly sweet, the meat itself was ground too finely (giving it a mealy texture) and had virtually no seasoning. The pasta fagioli Italian bean soup needed more punch and a dash of salt to elevate and blend its flavors.
The veal in my saltimbocca came with a nice saffron risotto, but the cutlet itself was too thick and a little tough — not the thinner, softer scaloppine you expect to find in that traditional Italian dish. The locally made flourless chocolate torte I had would’ve been luscious, but my slice was clearly taken right out of fridge when it was served, making it too cold and with a harder consistency more like butter instead of the velvety, pillowy, creamy, fudgy goodness it would’ve been about 30 minutes later.
All easy fixes.
And since the Chatfields genuinely care about what their customers think — even that critical Food Guy — I shared these observations when Mark asked, with no sugar-coating. He nodded and thanked me for every comment, saying some have already been addressed and the rest will be.
Did he agree with them all? I don’t know, but it also doesn’t matter. The real story here is that he and Libby are taking everything they’ve heard to heart and, more importantly, are using the feedback to make changes in an effort to evolve, improve and grow.
Other local restaurants that have overcome rough starts by doing just that (nearby Bricks & Barrels immediately comes to mind) have gone on to enjoy incredible success. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is — and I can’t wait to see what the “new” Ristorante Abruzzi looks like in the coming months.
If you tried this place before and were less-than-impressed, I think it deserves your second chance. If you haven’t been yet, now might be a good time to try it out.
IF YOU GO: Ristorante Abruzzi at 601 Morris St. in Charleston is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call (681) 265-3756 or visit www.abruzziwv.com.
Just as promised, I raced down to Melange Café on Quarrier Street Friday afternoon to sample the two Friday-only Samoan specials I’ve been hearing such good things about: the Kaleve Pisupo (corned beef gravy with coconut curry rice) and Steak Sapasui (chop suey with steak and mixed vegetables over steamed rice).
They packaged up both big hearty lunches for me, saying “We hope you all enjoy them!”
You all? It’s cute they thought I was sharing. I raced home and dug into both myself, enjoying the heck out of them.
The corned beef gravy was nicely spiced and not overly salty or heavy. I was expecting to like the kaleve best, but the chop suey was a nice surprise. Although the steak in it was a tad tough — and I don’t think a noodle dish needs to be served over rice — it delivered a symphony of salty, savory, tangy, slightly sweet flavors that stuck with me all afternoon.
If these dishes are previews of the expanded menu at Melange’s just-announced larger, second location coming to the corner of Virginia and Summers streets this month, I’ll be one happy Food Guy.