All of my friends and family members love going to Toscana, an Italian restaurant around the corner from my house. All I've been hearing this past year is, "Mmmmblehblehbleh we're going to Toscana, it's so awesome mmmmblehblehbleh."
I've declined every single invitation to Toscana because I hate it. Granted, I had never been there prior to last Wednesday, but it was a safe assumption that this was one of those pretentious Italian establishments - where it's impossible to read anything on the menu.
I may be alone in this, but I think that's the worst. Most people are seemingly fluent in Italian because they have no problem going to places like Toscana or Bertucci's, but I only know a couple of words in that language. I'm aware that amore means love, and I know sayonara means goodbye, but other than that, I don't know a lick of Italian.
Unfortunately, I received some terrible news last week. My friend Val called me that Tuesday...
Val: Hey, we're going out to dinner for Polina's (my cousin) birthday tomorrow night.
I wouldn't be able to get out of it this time. I was finally forced into going to Toscana. And while I did have fun hanging out with my friends, I predictably had a horrific dining experience. As you can imagine, several things went wrong for me that night:
I was super hungry when we were seated, so I eagerly opened the menu, praying that I could find some sort of dish that I recognized, since I refuse to eat anything I don't understand.
The header of the first page read: "Primi - Appetizers." I love appetizers - who doesn't? - but what the hell does Primi mean? Is that some sort of appetizer, like a premium appetizer? I don't like fancy-shmancy things, so I looked for a page with the words, "Ordini - Appetizers" (ordinary appetizers), but I couldn't find one.
I became even more disgruntled when I pored over the premium appetizer listings:
Tuscan Stuffed Mushrooms cremini mushroom caps filled with hot and sweet sausage & fresh aromatic herbs. baked with tuscan cheeses.
Nope. I hate mushrooms. They're disgusting. The only mushrooms I eat are the ones that make me bigger or give me an extra life.
Mozzarella Flambe blend of grilled mozzarella & asiago cheese flamed with sambuca. served with grilled pear & our fresh strawberry reduction.
Nope. While mozzarella sounds good, I don't know what flambe is. And flamed with sambuca? What the hell is a sambuca?
Nope. Caprese sounds like some sort of fish, and I'm not a huge fish guy unless it's fried fish or fish sticks.
Warm Crab Cheesecake a savory blend of cheese, jumbo lump crab, shrimp, roast pepper coulis & cucumber fresco.
Nope. I never got the infatuation with cheesecake. I think it's disgusting. Whoever thought that putting cheese into a cake was a good idea should be hanged.
Grappa Shrimp jumbo shrimp smothered in our delicious tuscan grappa infused buffalo sauce. accented with blue cheese & celery sticks.
Nope. I like shrimp, but not shrimp with grapes.
Elba Island Mussels island mussels sauteed in garlic, extra virgin olive oil, white wine, plum tomato, shaved fennel & fresh herbs. served with grilled tuscan peasant bread.
Nope. Wasn't Napoleon Dynamite deported to Elba Island at some point in his life? I don't want to eat mussels from there, whatever the hell mussels are.
Fried Calamari semolina crusted fresh calamari & zucchini fried & served with an authentic tuscan flair. complimented by our homemade marinara & cocktail sauces.
Nope. I'm not sure what calamari is, but it sounds disgusting.
Asparagus Al Parmigiano prosciutto wrapped fire grilled white & green asparagus accompanied with parmesan panna cotta. accented with a balsamic glaze.
Nope: If my mom couldn't force me to eat asparagus as a kid, why the hell would I order it on my own volition? And I don't know who Al Parmigiano is (some mobster?), but placing his name after asparagus doesn't make it any better. But hey, at least it's not Broccoli Al Parmigiano.
Tuscan Wings gourmet chicken wings coated with our vintage grappa infused tuscan medium spicy sauce. served with celery sticks & blue cheese.
Nope. I'm not a huge wing guy, but I'll eat them. But look what it says in the description: "vintage grappa." Grape-juice covered wings? I'll pass.
Nope. Not even going to venture a guess with this one.
Oh, and then there was the all-too-familiar first item on the premium appetizer list:
Bruschetta grilled artisan bread topped with marinated tomato, basil, fresh garlic, & imported extra virgin olive oil. add fior di latte mozzarella.
Some of you might be thinking, "Walt, why didn't you order the bruschetta? You must like mozzarella sticks, and Bruschettas sound exactly like mozzarella sticks!"
A classic rookie mistake. Contrary to popular belief, Bruschettas are not anything at all like mozzarella sticks. I've chronicled my past troubles with this in my Restaurant Jerks of the Week entry back in 2009.
My friend Body Burner, who was clever enough not to fall for the Bruschetta ruse, brought up that jerks entry.
Body Burner: I can't believe that you thought Bruscchettas were mozzarella sticks.
Me: What do you mean? The description is clearly designed to trick the customers.
Body Burner: How?
Me: OK, it says bread. Then it says marinated, which is the same thing as marinara. Umm... garlic and olive oil, I'm not sure. But then look, mozzarella! What other sort of food has bread, marinara and mozzarella?
Body Burner just shook his head in disgust. He realized that I was right. Pretentious Italian restaurants have screwed over customers for decades - and perhaps even centuries - by fooling the na?ve into thinking that they have mozzarella sticks on their appetizer menu.
Now I know better. I just need to find the Ordini - Appetizers page.
Body Burner has been attempting to become a Jerk of the Week for years. He's constantly asked stuff like, "Walt if I pour this bottle of Pepsi over your head, can I be a Jerk of the Week?" or, "Walt, if I abandon you on the side of the road while we're driving to the bowling alley, can I be a Jerk of the Week?"
This has not stopped. He even made a similar inquiry earlier that very night: "Walt, if I burn down this restaurant with everyone still inside, can I be a Jerk of the Week?" I told him he would be, but I wouldn't be able to write about it because of my burn wounds. Plus, I'd have to change his name to Building Burner anyway.
As it turns out, Body Burner did something somewhat inadvertently that was more egregious than dumping soda on my head, randomly kicking me out of his car and torching a building, all at the same time. He tricked me into eating disgusting food.
There were no cheese fries or mozzarella sticks on the menu, so I didn't order any appetizers. However, two were ordered for the table, one of which was the aforementioned Fried Calamari thing. I wasn't going to try any until Body Burner convinced me.
Body Burner: You should try this. You'd like it.
Me: No. I don't like to try new things. I don't know what fried calamari is.
Body Burner: Dude, it's just fried chicken and there's cocktail sauce. It's awesome.
Me: Fried chicken? I like fried chicken.
I picked up a piece of calamari - which was seemingly too stringy to be fried chicken - and I dumped it into cocktail sauce and then shoved it into my mouth. NOM NOM NOM NOM. I couldn't even taste the fried chicken; I was just enjoying the fantastic cocktail sauce.
Body Burner: You like it?
Me: Yeah, this cocktail sauce is great.
Body Burner: I mean the calamari.
Me: Oh. I guess it's OK. I couldn't really taste it with all of this cocktail sauce NOM NOM NOM NOM.
Body Burner: It's squid.
Body Burner: Calamari is squid. Hey everyone, I told Walt that calamari was fried chicken so that he would eat it!
Me: Well... well... you're going to be a Jerk of the Week!
When I announced this, Body Burner looked like a kid opening up presents on Christmas morning. His dreams were finally fulfilled.
Now, you might be wondering why I essentially rewarded him for tricking me. Well, I don't feel like being drenched in soda, left on the side of the road or engulfed by flames. Oh, and I was also in a good mood because I just had some yummy cocktail sauce.
The restaurant business is screwed up. You can get a better meal for less than $10 at Subway or Wawa than you can at overrated French restaurants that charge you $100 for something that doesn't taste good. The restaurant business continues to thrive, however, because of idiot hipsters who think they are too fancy for Subway or Wawa.
Toscana is somewhere in between. It's not expensive there, but it's not cheap either. Using restaurant logic, that should indicate that the food is mediocre. And it was.
One of the few things I recognized on the menu was, "Chicken Parmigiana in a light tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella & served with baked pasta bianca." That's obviously chicken parm. I know two words in Italian, but even I'm aware of that. My only reservation was that "bianca" thing at the end, but I was willing to take the risk.
My chicken parm came with my choice of a Caesar salad or something called a "Tuscan Wedge." This seemed like an easy choice, but my friend Wild Ginger (formerly known as Adrienne) changed my mind.
Me: Ha! Caesar salad or Tuscan Wedge? What kind of idiotic choice is that? Of course I'll take a Caesar salad.
Wild Ginger: Tuscan Wedge is really good!
Me: What? Impossible. What the hell is it?
Wild Ginger: It's like a wedge where you have lettuce, bacon bits and blue cheese dressing. It's awesome.
Holy crap. Lettuce, bacon bits and blue cheese? Umm... could I have like 10 of those? Seriously, it's tasty and healthy, so why not?
My Tuscan Wedge was delivered to me about 20 minutes later. I was disappointed, however. It tasted good, but I had to use my knife and fork to cut the wedge, which was just a brick of lettuce. I spent like five minutes cutting it up and making it into a salad. Body Burner watched me do this and laughed, "It's like they were just too lazy to make a real salad, so they just gave you a brick of lettuce instead."
Seriously. Why not just have a Tuscan salad instead of some sort of ambiguous Tuscan Wedge? It's almost like Toscana wanted to cut corners by not hiring a salad chef. Granted, finding people who can make good salads is expensive, but if you're going to charge close to $20 for chicken parm, I think you can afford it.
Speaking of the chicken parm, that was an even bigger disappointment. The chicken was the appropriate size, but there was cheese on only a small portion of it. Even worse, the lack of pasta was alarming. There was no spaghetti whatsoever. Instead, they gave me a block of noodles. I regret slicing off a chuck of the noodle brick because I would have liked to have shown you a picture of what it looked like when it was delivered to me:
Just try to imagine that thing on the left as a pasta cube. That's all I got. If you order chicken parm anywhere else, you get pasta under your chicken. But not at fancy-shmancy Toscana. Instead, the customer gets screwed over again, just like they do with the Bruschettas.
The silver lining is that I can now add a third word to my Italian vocabulary. It's safe to assume that "bianca" means: "A crappy brick of pasta replacing the usual spaghetti accompanying the chicken parm, which is a common thing pretentious Italian restaurants use to give the paying customers a rotten experience." Well f*** you, Toscana, and f*** your biancas.
The waitress brought our bill after a painful meal. The girls were taking a long time figuring everything out, so in the meantime, Body Burner had fun laughing at my food habits, pointing to random things on a stray menu that was still on the table.
Body Burner: Would you eat anything on this page?
Me: No. I can't read what any of it says.
Body Burner: What about this page?
Me: No. It's all gibberish to me. Like "eggplant." That's disgusting.
Body Burner: You know what that is. It's that purple thing.
Me: Yeah, but why would anyone eat it? It sounds awful. Eggs and plants together at the same time? Pass.
Body Burner shook his head and laughed again, presumably realizing that chefs have been fooling people for centuries by putting something as gross as an eggplant on the menu. Meanwhile, we were seemingly not any closer to paying the bill.
Me: What the hell's the holdup here?
Val: We're trying to figure out how much money to put in.
Me: Just divide it up evenly and put the same amount of money in. It's not that difficult.
I was ignored. All I kept hearing was, "I didn't get that. You got that. No, he got that. Oh, I got this. No you didn't get this, you got that. Who ordered that? Where was this on the bill? Oh, I see it."
It would have been agonizing if I weren't texting an awesome girl who likes football. All of the other guys - Body Burner, Matt, Not Asian Guy and Eugene - just sat there for nearly a half hour while all of the girls calculated their bulls***. They were all about to lose it when the bill came around to us. We looked at each other, said, "$30 each? OK," and just threw $30 down. It didn't even take half a minute.
That night, I had a dream that I was drugged and taken to Toscana. I was sitting down when a plate of their chicken parm was placed onto the table in front of me - only the parm part of the chicken was even smaller than usual. I then looked at the brick of pasta, which turned into a monster and attacked me. It choked me, shouting, "You'll never have a filling dinner ever again! Muhahahahaha!"
I woke up in a cold sweat. Phew. Just a dream. After splashing my face with water, I climbed back into bed and fell asleep rather quickly, taking solace into the fact that no one would ever be able to force me to go back to Toscana ever again.