Cheese Wiz: A few weeks ago, I had a problem I rarely run into: deciding where to take out-of-town friends and their three kids to eat, on our own nickel.
We wanted a nice place, not too fancy, but not a dive. The menu had to offer interesting food for the adults, and something the kids would like, too. I didn't want to spend a fortune, either.
We settled on Maria's When in Naples, the sister restaurant to Rustico. (See this week's Cafe review, page 73.)
Everyone was primed and happy. The kids dug into the pizzas. And the adults oohed and aahed over the homemade pastas, especially the extraordinary butternut squash ravioli and rotolo, a pasta sheet layered with spinach, prosciutto, roast peppers and cheese, all rolled into a colorful pinwheel.
Then our server asked who would like some grated Parmesan cheese. Our happy meal made a sharp U-turn.
My friend looked at the hunk of cheese the waiter brought out and asked, "Why are you serving Argentine Parmesan cheese?" The server's jaw dropped about a foot, and it took several moments for him to regain his composure and stammer out an incomprehensible explanation. But he didn't deny the point.
You see, Maria's had the misfortune to pass off this inferior cheese to one of the owners of the Cheese Board, a Berkeley, California, institution that's one of the best cheese shops in the country. My friend has been a cheese buyer for about 15 years. He also grew up in Argentina. He knows Argentine Parmesan when he sees it.
I knew it when I tasted it. It has none of the qualities of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the world's premier grating cheese, or Grana Padano, another superior Parmesan variety. Even pecorino Romano would have been okay. Argentine Parmesan, however, is bland, without character or depth. But it is cheap, a lot cheaper than the good stuff.
Why is this otherwise first-rate restaurant cutting corners with the grating cheese? Does the proprietor think customers are too ignorant to taste the difference? What's next, canned tomato sauce? Cutting corners is a dicey maneuver in the restaurant business. It can lead you not only to the edge of a slippery slope, but also headlong over it.
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I called Maria's When in Naples to ask about the cheesy Parmesan switcheroo. Proprietor Maria Ranieri could only say that it must have been some kind of "mistake." She says she keeps Parmigiano-Reggiano around for sprinkling on dishes. Perhaps the waiter grabbed the wrong cheese, she suggested, or the chef ordered the cheese without her knowledge. She swore that customers could count on getting the premium cheese.
Eternal vigilance, Thomas Jefferson once wrote, is the price of liberty. It's also the price of operating a restaurant. Whatever the reason for its appearance, Argentine Parmesan in a place like Maria's When in Naples is a no-no. It takes a long time and a lot of good work to build a restaurant reputation. It can take only a few thoughtless slips to bring it down.
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