Monday, April 14, 2008

Mambo Italiano - A Restaurant Review

Category: Food and Restaurants

Yesterday, Sunday April 13, 2008 just before 7PM I pulled into the strip mall that has a relatively new Italian restaurant called Mambo Italiano. It is on Butterfield Rd in Mundelein IL As soon as you walk in, you lose the feel that you are in a strip mall. The lighting was subdued, the walls were a warm brown painted in such a way as to give the impression of old weathered stucco or plaster. Tables were covered in white linen and topped with butcher paper. Salmon colored bread and butter dishes were topped with neatly folded mauve colored napkins.

The hostess desk is set back a bit into the restaurant, so you have to walk past a few tables to get there. I was behind a middle-aged couple who arrived at the same time I did. There were two girls at the hostess stand. They greeted the couple and one of the girls took them away to their table. The girl left behind did not make eye contact with me at all. She was more interested in answering the phone. A moment later a man, most likely the manager or owner came over and said hello. "Just me!" I announced as he was about to ask if I was going to be joined by others.

A lone diner. I threw him off and he didnt' know what to do with me, so he interrupted the girl on the phone and asked her which section was last sat. She snapped an answer at him as yet another girl came to the hostess stand. The man asked her if a certain server was just sat and she snapped back that she didn't know either. It all came across as bickering. I didn't think this was a good first impression, but I decided to stick it out because I was really craving Italian food.

Finally, the man decided where to put me and took me through an empty dining room into another well-seated one. I was given a booth at the window, I thanked him and took my place. I was rather disappointed to be at the window because the view of the parking lot through the white shears reminded me that I was indeed in a strip mall. I believe I would have enjoyed the ambiance farther back in the space. But, I was there for the food. So, I didn't ask to be re-seated.

The manager handed me a menu and removed the extra place settings. As he was doing this I inquired as to what the specialty was there. His answer was, "Everything," which is not what a patron wants to hear. When someone asks me that where I work, I know exactly what to say. Because the truth is, you can't be great at everything, but you CAN be known to be excellent for some special things. So, this was a red flag for me.

I looked at the menu which was a large piece of cardboard with printing on both sides. Much to my dismay, the wines were not on it and there was no wine list on the table. Another faux pas. A solo diner should be treated no differently than a group. A wine list should have been given to me like everyone else.

Seven minutes went by before I my waiter, Mark arrived at the table. I was actually just about to leave, and he got there in the nick of time. When he arrived he asked if I was waiting for someone and he was surprised when I told him that I was flying solo. Then I really through him off when I asked what his favorite meal was there. He said it was a tough question. Why? I wondered.

He regrouped, told me there was bread in the oven for me and then decided instead of answering the question, he would tell me all about the specials. He knew his specials very well and recited the precisely. As he did this, he did happen to mention that the ribeye special was his favorite dinner and that the Marsala was his favorite sauce. He asked if I had any questions. I replied, "No. I'll have the veal parmesian." THEN he asked if I would like something to drink. Silly me, I threw him off again by asking for the wine list.

Five minutes later he brought the wine list. Obvoiusly this kid did not know how important it was to get a drink in the hands of his customers FAST, because once they have one, they won't pay so much attention to the time everything takes. It took way too long for him to check back with me for my selection, but I will say, once I ordered the Ruffino Chianti Classico (Tan), he was quick about getting it to me. Finally!

The entrees come with soup or salad. I opted for the salad and asked for caesar dressing. I was not informed that this would cost me an extra $2.00, which I found out later when I got the check. The salad was fresh, but was tossed in way too much dressing. The bread, which was brought by the bus boy earlier was warm and rather bland. I took advantage of the bottle of olive oil on the table, but noticed that I was not offered freshly grated cheese. No. There was pre-grated cheese in a shaker on the table. This was quite an incongruity for the atmosphere, food selection and pricing. In fac, it was disappointing.

I sipped my wine and enjoyed the salad as I was waiting for my meal to arrive. Bus staff were attentive and took my plate in a timely manner. The waiter brought the entree himself and asked if he could bring anything else. I told him to check back soon as I would be ready for another glass of wine to drink with my meal, and off he went.

The portion of veal almost completely filled the plate which also had a small portion of little penne with marinara sauce on it. The veal was pounded paper thin and was very tender, but the breading was way too thick and overwhelmed the flavor of the veal. The sauce was sweet ans spicy, with the most robust flavor being sweet onion. I could not discern any garlic or Italian herbs. The cheese on top was an excellent blend and very generous. I will say that I was surprised by the penne, as I expected the traditional spaghetti. There was no choice of pasta shape given when ordering.

The waiter took too long to come by for me to order that second glass of wine, but I ordered it anyway. Again, he was quick in bringing it.

I ate about a third of the portion bought to me. When I pushed the plate away, it still took quite a bit of time for Mark to return to the table. he asked if I would like to have that packed up and of course I agreed. He was about to drop my check before offering me dessert and coffee. In fact I had to request the dessert menu and I was never offered coffee. This kid needs to learn about suggestive selling! I asked him what his favorite dessert was after he dropped the menu, and he immediately answered with "Our homemade Tiramisu." I was surprised at the homemade comment and said so, and he said they also make homemade canoli and cannoli puffs. I immediately ordered a cannoli without looking at the rest of the dessert menu.

When he brought the cannoli he also left the check. As he speeded away I said, I hope its as good as Little Italy in New York. He barely turned his head to acknowledge my comment with a laugh. I never saw Mark again. Since the place emptied, I guess he chose to do his side work and not attend to the solo diner that was left in his section.

I put cash in the check presenter, and walked through the now mostly empty restaurant. After I passed the two hostesses and manager who were talking to each other, one of the hostesses thanked me and wished me a good night.

Overall rating on a 1-5 scale: 3.5
Food: 4
Service: 3
Ambience: 4
Hospitality: 3

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dining Alone

Category: Food and Restaurants

Today I managed the Sunday Brunch at work and when I was through with my shift at around 6:30 this evening, I decided that I wanted to take myself out to eat. Myself. that's it. Just me. I do this semi-regularly and it is always an interesting experience. Not everyone can do it. I don't know if it takes moxie, self assurance, or just the pure enjoyment of eating, which, after all is the "other" sensual pleasure available to us in life.

I have, on occasion, been ignored when dining alone. Some hosts and servers seem to have difficulty wrapping their heads around the concept that someone would eat at a restaurant sans companionship. It makes them uncomfortable! How funny is that? Their role doesn't change. They must simply do their jobs like they do countless other times each day they work. What is it about a solo diner that throws people off their game?

I wonder if the restaurant folk are concerned that a person is lonely? They may be. Or they may just find themselves needing to grab a meal when their significant other is away, or busy. Or perhaps, they had a rough day and want time to process things so that they don't have to bring their troubles home to their families. Maybe they are in town on business and need to eat. Or perhaps, they just want to treat themselves to a nice meal that they would not or could not prepare for themselves.

Now, since I have been "taking myself out to eat" for most of my adult life, one would think that I would get it. I do. And in fact, over the years as I have become more and more comfortable with eating out alone, I find myself in the role of putting others at ease with it. It's no big deal to me. But, I make light and instead of saying "One" as I am greeted, acknowledge or sometimes stared at with bewilderment by the Host, I usually smile brightly and say something like, "I'm flying solo tonight!" in a very perky voice. It's amazing how something so simple can remove a look of concern as they ponder where to put just one person.

You would think that seating one person would be easy. It's not. Personally, I never understood why it seemed to throw them off. But that was before I became a server and restaurant manager myself. You see, no server wants a "1-top" because they won't make as much money from one person as they would from a party of 2, 4 or more. That is a a truth. However, as a server, I have on several occasions so far, and hopefully many more to come, been enriched by taking care of my "1-tops."

A person dining alone is rare. As a server who often dines alone, I recognize this, understand both sides, and take advantage of it. It's much easier to engage a solo diner in conversation. I always ask what the occasion is that brings them out on their own. This is usually all that is necessary to hear all about their business trip or that they are "bach-ing" it for the night, or that the kids were driving her crazy and she just needed to have some solitude in the adult world. These are fabulous opportunities to have a very real human connection in an otherwise superficial venue.

When I am in the dining seat, I also attempt to engage my server. Some are put off by this and some jump right in and welcome the connection. I have had some really good conversations with wait staff over the years. Some people serve because they need money, some because they have no other skills, some because they love the social nature of the job, or a combination of these or other factors.. It is easy to find out with a smile and few friendly questions. If the server is open I will watch as my curiosity about them brightens their mood. When that happens, we both have a good experience.

The other thing I do as a solo diner is make sure that my presence in a server's section is worth their while. In other words, I am a good tipper. I never leave less than 20% when dining alone. And when I revisit a place, this is then known about me and it changes how I am treated and perceived.

Tonight, I was in the mood for Italian and took myself to a relatively new place that I have been wanting to try: Mambo Italiano. My next blog will be my version of a restaurant review of my experiences there not only as a sole diner, but as a food lover.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Loss Sucks

Current mood:Unsettled
Category: Life
Six months after my last blog entry and the theme of loss continues. And, I must tell you... it sucks. Here's a recap:

September 2006: David breaks up with me

December 2006: I lose my thyroid via surgery due to CA

January 2007: Uncle Bob, an important father figure to me, loses his battle with ALS

July 2007: My own father loses his battle with lung cancer. (This is the big one.)

August 2007: My job is eliminated

October 2007: My cousin Brian loses his battle with alcoholism

January 2008: A dear lady who adopted me into her family out here in IL, Joan Twarowski dies of cancer after a long fight.

March 2008: Aunt Ethel dies at age 94. (I was planning a trip to see her this spring.)

That is a hell of a lot of loss and I have to tell you, it's too much for one person to deal with alone. I realize that the other people in the family have experienced most of these losses as well. What makes it different for me however, is that I am alone. Everyone else has spouses and/or children depending on them. No one depends on me. And so.... I also find myself grieving the loss of my chance at motherhood.

Alone and grieving is not a good place to be. It is horribly depressing and I'm not a generally depressed person, so feeling down was alien to me. In fact it is dibilitating. I have been paralized. I have been nonfunctional If I hadn't had my little dog, Ozzy, I don't know that I would have survived at all. He is what I know I have to take care of every day. Everything else, I didn't care about.

Now I am finally wanting to choose life and fight my way out of this abyss. I need help, but I know not who to ask. Hell, I don't even know what kind of help I need, for that matter. I have made a mess of my finances. I seem to be afraid of everything. The only thing that keeps me going is work. And even that is not the best. I need to find a regular job, with benefits, but I am so mired in grief that I don't know what I want to look for or where to begin.

I think about moving back to New Jersey so that I can be close to family again, but I really don't want to go back there. I would much rather have everyone move out here to Chicagoland!

Floundering in limbo is what life is right now.

The only thing I have really worked on and enjoyed in the past year or so is the novel that I am writing. I have made some good progress and hope to finish it in the next few months or so. Then I will have to figure out how to go about getting it published. The problem is that it is a very well written and very erotic novel. So what kind of publisher would touch it? I'm thinking I'll have to send it to Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione, but I would prefer it be picked up by a decent publishing house and marketed towards couples. I have let few people read experpts and have received some fabuous feedback. The recurring theme of the feedback is that it is well written and VERY HOT. There is enough plot to hook women into caring about the characters and yet has the kind of language that men find.... um.... shall we say, "stimulating." I think it could be a great erotic bedtime story for couples. It could be the catalyst for mutual fantasy exploration.

I was originally concerned about embarrassing the family and considered using a pseudonym when I sought publication. After much thought, it became clear that I have to put my name on it, because I'm always the one saying that Americans need to stop sweeping sex under the rug and start talking about it. I mean, by the age of 15, a teenager could probably tell you more than a hundred ways to kill another person but not be able to tell you how to please another person. The paranoia over nudity and sexual content is ridiculous to me. Shouldn't we show how to treat each other well in our media and not how to kill each other? I would like to see more loving relationships on TV that admit to sexual relations. The only show that I watch that continually goes there is a cartoon! Family Guy actually explores in a very clever and funny way the sex life of a married couple. It's genius! Seth MacFarlane even showed bdsm fetish play between Peter and Lois.

OK... I'm done rambling for the moment. This blog took on a direction all its own, but I am going to take the risk and post it anyway.