No Substitutions! Keeping it Real at Terroni

terroniinteriorOne of the great things about the blogosphere is that anyone with access to a computer can have their say on any topic they’re interested in. The downside to this is that opinions are often voiced without anything to back them up, and bloggers generally aren’t much interested in presenting both sides of the story. A couple of recent articles about the southern Italian restaurant Terroni spawned a lot of opinions and comments (some good, most critical) about the policies that restaurant chain has in place to ensure the authenticity of the food it serves. The blogger, and readers posting comments, ranted about being refused everything from cheese to butter to water. Yet, oddly, it didn’t look as if anyone had approached the management at Terroni to find out why these policies were in place.

Since I’m always interested in the back of house intricacies of the restaurant business – the whys and wherefores of service – I sat down recently with Terroni owner Cosimo Mammoliti to find out what all the fuss was about.

What’s important to note from the start is that Terroni has always billed itself as serving “traditional southern Italian food”, which differs from what is typically served in the northern or central regions of that country. In southern Italy, pasta is usually dried (although Terroni makes most of theirs fresh daily), the growing season is longer and hotter, and the tomato reigns supreme. Seafood and lamb are more popular than beef, and cheeses, with the exception of mozzarella, tend to be quite firm. Butter is almost non-existent, and cream sauces unheard of. Broccoli raab (aka. rapini) is a favourite winter vegetable.

Unfortunately for Terroni staff, customers unfamiliar with southern Italian food aren’t always aware of these parameters, and while Toronto prides itself on being a multi-cultural city, we still tend to think of cuisines as being mono-cultural, with no differentiation for regionality.

Mammoliti points out that each time they open a new location, the complaints about the restaurant’s policies begin anew. Longtime customers who have been filling seats since Mammoliti and (now deceased) partner Paolo Scoppio opened the first location on Queen Street West in 1992 know what to expect. But as the company expands and attracts new customers who are not familiar with Terroni’s traditional menu, the confusion, and the complaints start up again.

Mammoliti offers two reasons for the strict policies, and they tend to be the same reasons that almost any restaurant would offer.

First, all the Toronto locations, as well as the location in Los Angeles, are busy. The kitchens (which at the Queen West location is literally an open-style galley) are small, and during a rush, any substitution is a mistake waiting to happen.

“When we were a smaller place, it was easier,” says Mammoliti. “But mistakes happen when you’re doing substitutions, then the kitchen has to remake it. Then if we do the substitution and then they don’t like it, we’ve got to make them something else.”

The overall number of covers also affects the ability of Terroni’s chefs to easily accommodate changes. “We serve a lot of people every day. If every person made a special request, it would be too difficult,” explains Mammoliti. “It would slow everything down.”

“Then you get into the issue of what is the difference between a right substitution and a wrong substitution,” he says, pointing out that the restaurant will not serve its fish dishes with parmigiano, despite customers requesting it. “We try to nip this in the bud by including information on the menu – seafood pasta is not served with parmigiano because the cheese will destroy the delicate taste of the fish.”

Some customers accept this reasoning, but others are put off by the fact that other Italian restaurants may serve the dish this way, or offer the cheese despite reservations about how it alters the flavour of the dish, simply to keep the customer happy.

“A lot of other restaurants do what the customer wants,” Mammoliti explains. “They’re jeopardizing their whole menu to give the customer what they want. But what you’re cooking, it’s your heritage – we started off small and now that we’ve grown, the new customers don’t understand what we’re doing.”

“These recipes are traditional – it’s how I was taught to cook. I used to make the pizza, I worked 10 years in the kitchen when we first opened. Even if you put another guy on the line, substitutions can throw off the whole kitchen.” Mammoliti points out that Terroni offers a large menu that can accommodate most dietary concerns, and as his own son has food allergies, he understands the frustration this can cause, so Terroni generally will make minor substitutions to accommodate food allergies.

When I ask about the refusal to serve butter with bread, he laughs, pointing out that they’re not withholding the stuff to be difficult – there’s just no butter in the restaurant, period. “We never had butter from day one. We might have butter in the pastry kitchen but we don’t cook with butter, it’s not traditional. We’ve always used olive oil, which is better for you.”

Mammoliti imports the olive oil from a friend’s plantation exclusively for Terroni, and admits to being offended when customers want to mix it with balsamic vinegar. While the balsamic Terroni uses for dressing is a good quality, it is not the super high-end 12-year-old product purists clamour for, and Mammoliti feels that mixing it with the (admittedly amazing!!) olive oil they use would ruin the integrity of the ingredients.

He does tell me that staff are being updated on how to deal with customer requests with training courses that will help them to explain the differences between southern and northern Italian cuisine more succinctly. The menu as well includes some information that explains how the food is served – for instance pizzas arrive uncut, olives are served with their pits.

Mammoliti’s enthusiasm and dedication to his product and his restaurants become apparent the more we talk. “We try to keep traditional and authentic, slow food or whatever you want to call it. We’re trying to keep it to the way we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.” To that effect, he explains that Terroni brings in flour from Italy, as well as regional organic tomatoes that are double what they’d cost if sourced locally. The restaurant also imports their wines directly. The buying power of four locations allows them to bring in exclusive products not available anywhere else.

Ultimately, Mammoliti hopes that customers will give the regional cuisine a chance, and sit down in his restaurant with an open mind and trust that he’s designed a menu with the intention of showcasing the very best attributes of true southern Italian food and the quality of its ingredients . “I don’t want customers to take it personally, it’s not an ego thing,” he assures me. “I’m really just trying to do what my ancestors have been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years – trying to keep what they’ve been doing alive.”

Photos by Stephanie Palmer – from the Terroni website.