No Reservations

by Kriston Capps

Read on in horror and delight as a recent traveler on an international route between India and Great Britain details the culinary confusion that still persists between former colony and former colonizer! Crime-scene cookie and mustard custard, indeed. Why, it’s no wonder things never worked out between the two — if this passenger’s food journal is any indication!

What comedy in cuisine the clash of civilizations creates! Surely the members of the Internet Food Association, that well-traveled lot!, and their jet-setting readers will care to share some of their very own tales of near-miss and misfortune, mis-placed meals and mal-appropriated traditions, while visiting distant lands?

Allow me to dare and permit to declare up front, lest some Roman in the audience correct me that pizza is not the food of the colonies but rather the food of the Gods. My story concerns Sbarro pizza, which has never been confused with Italian food, and is not a pie even a shade would take delight in were there delivery past that Stygian line. Sbarro is mall pizza, and that is something that Americans know a little about.

This story finds your correspondent in Russia, not stationed along the Golden Ring or in the farflung permawastes of Siberia, but in a mall, located near the Internet cafe underneath Red Square. When a foreigner tires of borscht and all the other flavors of overboiled cabbage that Russians try to disguise with dill, he will seek refuge: the nearest Georgian restaurant, where the food will be out of this world delicious, featuring steamed pork buns and grilled lamb and spicy chutneys, a truly Central Asian cuisine; or a local pectopan serving chicken shawarma, which is reliably better than you’ll find in other non–Middle Eastern countries; or even the corner kartoshka stand, because how do you screw up a baked potato?

The truly homesick traveler knows that the secret to freedom lay buried underneath Lenin’s pillow: A Sbarro pizza, right there in Red Square’s underground Food Court. (There is no greater testament to the triumph of Capitalism in the former Soviet Union, by the way, than the Red Square Food Court.) However, this being Russia, there is one thing that a Sbarro cannot serve you: a whole pizza pie. It cannot be done.

It is service that Russia cannot get right. While the nation operates on a more or less (okay, less) capitalist system, it has yet to adopt some critical aspects of the restaurant industry. Ask your waitress for anything? She will berate you for bothering her while she’s busy. That’s not just true of the kommandants who serve the kashi in the mornings: I found this to be true at the reasonably upscale TGIFridays in Moscow, the local Yolki Palki chain, and other restaurants. Beg for less dill (snyet dillom, snyet dillom!) at the corner blini stand? You will get more dill. You will get a heap of dill.

While not as gastronomically gross as the meal Virgin is serving between Mumbai and Manchester, a meal ruined by bad service is still a ruined meal. Prickly Sbarro staff refused an order for a whole pizza pie. There was not even a price for a whole pizza pie, so it could not be done. What about eight contiguous slices? Reader, I waited in anticipation as management made telephone calls to district supervisors. Staff went to committee over the question. To no avail: It could not be done. Much like an enjoyable experience at a Russian restaurant.

3 responses to “No Reservations

  1. More a “lost in translation” moment than a food moment, but nevertheless an amusing anecdote from the aforementioned Georgia (which does have great food). Restaurants in Tbilisi often have extensive menus which aren’t entirely well translated into english. One of my old neighborhood hangouts had a clearly mistranslated, but appropriate, slogan next to the restaurant name on the menu – “We make hangover dishes delicious”. My best guess is that they were going for, “we make delicious homemade dishes”, but the mistake is so much better.

  2. You don’t have to sally abroad to experience a mal-appropriated pizza purchase. Any discussion of pizza carries a risk of grand debate, but most places in the US at least get the idea. But not all places, no.

    A few years back before the dot.com bubble burst I made my way as an itinerant consultant who spent 90% of my time on the road. Pizza was my safe bet food while traveling. You can find a passable slice just about anywhere if you ask the locals. Most of it was pretty non-descript, but mall pizza was about the mean. Meh. But what’s a vegetarian to do in 1998 Tulsa, OK at 8PM? So in major cities I learned the wisdom of low expectations.

    Then I visited a small town (way) outside of Toledo that has a sizable steel plant plopped incongruously down in the middle of farmland. Seriously, a 45 minute drive through soybeans and corn from my motel brought me to this remote hamlet with a Japanese-owned coating plant sitting there like Rick James in a crowd of Mormons. There was a Subway, a couple of bars, and a diner called “Diner.” Diner didn’t exactly look like the most vegetarian friendly joint, and there is only so much Subway a man can consume. (un)Luckily, I managed to find a “pizza” parlor in the sad attempt of a strip mall that housed the Subway. There was a cheery sign in the window: “New York Style!” and standard issue posters of the Ligurian coast and Rome on the walls. What was served was… astonishing. I suppose if you gave a Cambodian woman a poorly translated account of what pizza is, she might produce something like this and then wonder what all the fuss was about. The crust was risen with what I assume to be baking soda and was obviously made without salt. Basically, it tasted like a puffy saltine sans salt. No, that’s unfair to bad saltines. It made Wonderbread interesting and desirable by comparison. Topping the dough-product was a metalish tomato sauce. Just tomato sauce. No herbs. No garlic. No sugar. And again, no salt (perhaps there is a salt-based hypertension problem in the area?). Open a can of Hunts tomato sauce and you’re miles better off than what these people were using. On top of that was a sparse amount of farmer’s cheese that wasn’t really melted. I’m all for locally produced goods, but I draw the line at Amish cheese on pizza.

    I glumly ate one of the three warm blocks (they were rectangles kind of), slurped my Pepsi, and punched in some stuff on my laptop (a device the counter man had never seen the like of), and resolved to pursue a better appreciation of Subway and its sandwich artists henceforth. You don’t need to go to Moscow to have a terrible pizza experience, but its probably easier to get to.

  3. I love the food in Moscow, personally, but maybe i’m easy to please. I never ate at any restaurant that tried to pretend it was “upscale” (except for a bar called “Soup,” which served only … soup), but the vereniki, pilmeni, and blini warmed my stomach the entire winter i was there.

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