By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
A recent effort of Seftel's ("Vittle Italy," April 15) struck me as especially ridiculous. His careless and mean-spirited review, in which he presumed to compare two utterly disparate restaurants, Cafe Terrace and Buca di Beppo, rested on the baseless premise that both establishments would claim to offer a "real and genuine," as opposed to a "contrived and distorted," Italian dining experience.
This lazy presumption just serves to set up a straw dog for Seftel to swing at. "Do you believe Buca di Beppo is a genuine Italian restaurant?" he asks, suggesting that the people who created Buca must believe it. He then proceeds to criticize and ridicule Buca for failing to rise to a standard to which it obviously does not aspire. Amazingly, he seems to think he's cleverly deflating Buca's pretense of authenticity by likening it to a Disneyesque "Little Italyland." Is Seftel being deliberately obtuse, or is he truly such a bonehead that he could have so completely missed the point of this restaurant?
Fine, he doesn't like the food, or he isn't charmed by the "hot concept." There's no point in debating those matters of taste. But he's insulting everyone's intelligence by actually suggesting that this place was trying for authenticity and woefully missed the mark. I think it's clear to everyone who has set foot in the door--with the exception of Seftel--that Buca is a deliberately over-the-top parody of, and homage to, 1950s Little Italy-style restaurants. That is what they were going for. And one would no more expect to get "real and genuine" Italian food in Little Italy in the 1950s than one would expect to get legitimate Mexican food at Tee Pee. I'm a huge fan of Tee Pee; but I know what I'm getting there is Mexican-AMERICAN food, with a hefty dose of Mexican kitsch thrown in for good measure.
Seftel also fails to inform his readers, as he lambastes Buca for huge portions, that the huge portions are PART of the CONCEPT. Again, he doesn't have to like the concept, but he should at least base his criticism on what the people at Buca are attempting. This is, as the atmosphere and servers underscore, a restaurant for groups and celebrations. Entrees are meant to be served "family style," with a few large dishes passed around and shared by several people. Seftel deliberately gave the impression that the large portions were a weird lapse in judgment on Buca's part.
No Seftel review would be complete without those ethnic stereotypes that he so loves to truck out, but here they are used to truly bizarre effect. What's with the repeated references to Buca's supposedly "Scandinavian" roots? Really, what's up with that? First of all, Buca's founder is a man named Phil Roberts, and he's not Scandinavian. He just isn't. But apparently Seftel feels that he's uncovered some shameful secret about the restaurant's pedigree in that his careful research indicates that Roberts is from . . . Minneapolis. Ahh, say no more. How laughable that a restaurant serving Italian-American food would be based in Minneapolis, where Seftel has it on good authority that lots of Scandinavians live. Would his editors have allowed him to make similarly disparaging comments about Buca's inauthenticity had it been based in Washington, D.C., where lots of black people live? I was just wondering.
By contrast, he lavishes praise on Cafe Terrace as he goes out of his way to refer frequently to the "affable, Italian-accented proprietor" and his "Mama in the kitchen." There's even a funny joke about Sicilians and horse heads. This simple-minded obsession with what he perceives to be the ethnic origins of a restaurant's proprietor is as tiresome as it is offensive. Oooh, an Italian accent all the way out here in Phoenix. It must be good.
I'm a New Times reader who genuinely cares about the quality of restaurants in this city. I'm so disappointed that New Times is relying upon Howard Seftel to cover this beat. We'll never be a real restaurant town without a real restaurant critic.
Howard Seftel responds: Oh, no, Ms. Kolbe, I did notice that Buca di Beppo is a "deliberately over-the-top parody of, and homage to, 1950s Little Italy-style restaurants." And as a parody and homage, it's a kitschy hoot. But as a restaurant, it's awful, unless you enjoy tasteless mounds of pseudo-Italian food.
I also noticed, and take a lot more seriously, Kolbe's charge of ethnic stereotyping. Let's see exactly what I wrote.
According to Ms. Kolbe, in the accompanying review of Cafe Terrace, Seftel "goes out of his way to refer frequently to the 'affable, Italian-accented proprietor' and his 'Mama in the kitchen.'" No, I didn't go out of my way at all--I said it deliberately, and just once. Wouldn't you want to know who was running the restaurant?
Next, Ms. Kolbe is annoyed that I referred to Buca di Beppo's founder's Scandinavian roots. But I didn't rip Buca di Beppo because of the ethnic background of Phil Roberts, or his Minnesota address. I ripped it because of its corporate roots--the dishes here taste like they were fashioned by accountants, not chefs.