So long Stugazzi’s Restaurant

The last thing I ever want is for a local, small business in my town to fail.  But just because a business opens, doesn’t mean it will be successful, or deserve to succeed.  It is especially difficult for a restaurant.  One in four restaurants fail (or change ownership) in the first year.

Maine is place where even international chain restaurants like “Chili’s” can’t even stay open,  so a small, private restaurant has to have a lot of luck and something very special to offer the public if it’s ever going to make it.

I wrote a few reviews of Stugazzi’s Restaurant in Springvale, Maine.  I was harsh, and it spurned some lively debate.  That’s a nice word for “arguing”.  My reviews had hit a nerve.  I wasn’t being snarky.  I was being honest.  It it was awesome, I would have said so.

By all accounts, even by those who stood up for this restaurant, if anyone took an honest look at this restaurant, had to admit it was below average.   The truth hurts, I know.  Maybe one or two of their food items were good, but overall, a restaurant can’t call itself an “authentic” Italian restaurant and serve “chicken fingers”.  I don’t care if some people think that restaurants need to cater to the kids; Italian mothers in  “authentic” Italian kitchens in the Tuscan countryside don’t feed their kids chicken finger.  If you want to serve kids a crunchy, chicken appetizer, cut up an “authentic” chicken cutlet, pounded thinly, pan-fried in a very light and delicious coating, quick-cooked to perfection.  Top it with fresh buffalo mozzarella and a side of home-made marinara sauce, and you are good to go – without compromising your “authentic” principles.  It’s not more expensive for the chef to cook the real version than the insipid American concoction known  (which by the way started in American-Chinese restaurants) unless that restaurant is buying them frozen from a restaurant bulk frozen food supply house, in which case you’ve lost your way on the “authentic” road anyway so you should pack it in.

The food itself wasn’t the real problem with Stugazzi’s, it was the design of the customer experience.  Nothing worked.  From confusing self-seating, to “where the hell do I park”, to an uncomfortable entrance where the patrons landed right at the bar, to the rude staff, to the restaurant’s inability to properly pack take-out food —  the gaping holes in service were endless.  This isn’t rocket science.  And if there is one thing that Sanford/Springvale needs is more quality restaurant choices.  For god’s sake, the hot dog truck on Main Street is one of the better establishments.

It’s not my job to tell a restaurant owner how to run his restaurant.  But if the owners and their friends had read the clues (which could hardly be called clues since they were not inconspicuous in my writing; they were direct and on point) instead of firing off nasty emails and comments about my comments, then maybe their authentic Italian restaurant would still be open – and successful.  That would have been awesome!

I truly am sorry that a local business failed.  I really am.  It’s the last thing our little town needs. But I’m not sad to see a low-quality restaurant with poor service close up shop;  in my neighborhood or anywhere else.

Now, if the owners would like to re-open, with a new attitude, and a new outlook on how to serve quality food to the public, in a unique, satisfying, affordable, and authentic way, I’d be happy to help wherever I can.

The biggest problem with Stugazzi’s is that it appeared as if the owners never walked into their own establishment as a customer (incognito, or send in a mole with a hidden camera), as if they never had seen the place before, and experienced it from the customer’s perspective.  They needed to do that objectively.  Call in an order for pickup. Sit and order food, on several occasions on several different days and times.  Eat at the bar, and eat in the dining room.  Then they would have seen what most of us saw.  A successful restaurant is about its customers, not its owner’s ego.

I do wish the owners well, and I hope, maybe, they learned something that can take them on to their next endeavor, which will be successful.


Third and final visit to Stugazzi’s – for good

I did as I promised.  I at inside the restaurant.  No takeout this time and ergo no excuses.

The experience was, unfortunately, the same or worse than expected.  Starting from walking in the joint and seeing the “Please wait to be seated” sign.  We waited for a few seconds and the waitress said “Are you here for lunch, just sit anywhere”.  Why did I wait to be seated only to be told “sit anywhere”.

I took my  mother out for her birthday.  When we walked into the dining room there was one very large table of about 12 to 14 people.  And that was it.  Because it was about 140 degrees in the dining room, my mother and I decided to sit by the front door, which was open and offered the only respite from the heat.  This door was not supposed to be an entrance, more like a fire door.  As a result of that door being opened, they had to put a big hand-made sign at the front of the restaurant, in front of that door, that said “Use other door”.  It was a very nice sign, hand-written on scrap paper.

It was so stifling that we decided to leave.  When the waitress came over with the menu we told her that we were going to leave because of the heat.  We said it nicely.  We realized it was a warm day.  The waitress however couldn’t hear what we were saying because motorcycles without mufflers and cars that hadn’t had a tune up since the late 70’s were speeding by right outside this door we were near.  She asked us if we wanted to relocate to the table in the back away from the door; and right next to the boisterous table of 14.  We passed on that.

It turned out OK.  She closed the door and turned the air conditioning on.  We decided to stay and make the best of it.  I didn’t say a word to my mother regarding my reviews of  Stugazzis and I really wanted to finish up the 3 part series by eating inside the restaurant as I promised I would.

It is far too exhausting at this point to write yet another review about the lackluster food at Stugazzis.  Suffice it to say my mother’s veggie pizza was soggy, undercooked on the bottom, but had scorched veggies on the top.  My chicken parmesan was obviously re-heated from something they made the night before.  The chicken’s coating wouldn’t adhere to the meat and the whole dish had no flavor.

At the end of the meal when the waitress asked us if we wanted to take the leftovers home, we politely said no.

I’m a little sick of getting comments about how wonderful Stugazzis is.  After 3 attempts, there is no way you can convince me that the food there is good.  It seems to me that if a restaurant gives out huge portions, regardless of how bad the quality of those portions is, Americans are happy.  Over-eating, glutinous, fat American sloths are happier than a pig in shit as long as they have enough food in a doggie bag to eat for 2 more days.  You know who you are and you disgust me.

Stugazzis is not a restaurant, it’s a place where you can stuff you face on what can only qualify as food by the FDA, but not by me.  I’ve eaten there enough now that I know the deal.  So don’t bother commenting on this post.  Case is closed.

Back to Stugazzi’s, Restaurant Review Part 2

After my first review of Stugazzi’s Italian AMERICAN restaurant, I received a lot of disagreeable comments.   I always try to be fair and don’t have any reservations about admitting I’m wrong.  So I decided to give Stugazzi’s another try.

I know that in order to have credibility, I would have to order a small variety of dishes and on different nights.  In the meantime I asked one of the cashiers at Rite-Aid (across the street from Stugazzi’s) if she had ever been to Stugazzi’s.  She said yes, and I asked what she had and was it good.  She raved about one dish; it was pasta with chicken and broccoli in what she called an alfredo sauce.  So I gave it a shot.  The next evening after work, I called in a to-go order.  I order the chicken and broccoli over linguini.  I also ordered a caesar salad.  When I arrived to pick it up I noticed they had renovated a bit from the last time I was there.  What didn’t change was the confusion.  Not only I, but other customers who walked in, had no idea where to go, where to stand, do we seat ourselves, where do I go to pick up my take out.  The only thing that changed is that they had added a big wooden bar on the left side of “the room”.  I still don’t know if you are supposed to seat yourself or wait for the waitress.  I remember people asking what they should do but I was more concerned about my order and since I wasn’t eating in, I didn’t care.

Back to the food.  After asking what I had to do to pick up my take out order, I walked over to the “window”.  Both the pasta dish and the caesar salad came in a typical supermarket, salad bar, aluminum, round thing with a see-through plastic cover.  In addition, each aluminum “bowl” was covered in layers of plastic wrap.  I knew at that moment the packaging would come back to haunt me but wasn’t sure how or why, yet.   The salad (cold) was placed on top of the pasta dish (hot).  So the heat from the pasta dish wilted the caesar salad.  Anyone in the food industry with any experience at all knows that you put cold on the bottom, then a piece of cardboard, then the hot stuff on top.  When you do it the other way, heat rises and so does the heat’s wilting ability. DUH!

Because I live close by I just paid and took my stuff and went home quickly.  I tried hard to salvage the salad but to no avail.  I threw it in the fridge as soon as I got home but in checking it later, the dry, wilted, dressing-less salad could not be salvaged.  That’s $7.00 I’ll never get back.

Next, I unwrapped the pasta dish as if it were a mummy at an archeological dig.  Luckily, the “sauce” was not really alfredo.  It was more like a light butter sauce with some lemon, maybe white wine, and garlic.  I started to have renewed faith that maybe Stugazzi’s would surprise me.  Barring the caesar salad incident, and the fact that my first visit ever was opening week, this pasta dish was pretty good.  I enjoyed it.  It’s not something I would crave but I enjoyed it enough for a last-minute meal decision on the way home from work.  The salad gave its life for me that night.  I buried it in my garbage can.

So I had one really bad experience a few months ago, followed by one OK experience on Wednesday, earlier this week.  I was thinking about this blog and the comments and I really wanted to have a fantastic experience. 

So yesterday, on Friday night, just two days after my pasta experience, I tried again. 

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Restaurant Review – Stugazzi’s – Springvale, Maine

This is my first restaurant review.  I don’t know why I haven’t done one before; I am a bit of a foodie and have some basic training from culinary school.  I like good food and I think I know what good food is.  So maybe I’ll do more, we’ll see.

When I moved to Maine in 2001 the first thing I missed was the incredibly good food and restaurant choices I had in Connecticut.  Every time a new restaurant opens here in my neck of the woods, I have high hopes, and I’m usually disappointed.

With little fanfare, a small Italian restaurant called “Stugazzi’s” opened in my neighborhood.  When I say that I mean my apartment building and Stugazzi’s share a common parking lot and dumpster.  Our dumpster sharing should have been an omen.

When I walked into Stugazzi’s out of the blue on a very rainy Friday afternoon, I was a bit confused.  I saw a few tables and a big window cut-out through which you could see the pizza oven’s and the kitchen.  The cut-out had a large flat bottom that resembled a counter and I saw a cash register there so I thought maybe it was a walk-up window to place an order.  To the right there was a door to what looked like a dining room but there was no sign that said “Please wait to be seated” or “Please seat yourself” or “Order Here”; nothing.  I later noticed that other customers walked in with the same confused look on their faces which seemed to say “Where do we go, who do we talk do, how do I order food here?”.

In any case I stood at the “window-counter” staring at the pizza ovens directly behind it.  I stood there for several minutes before a man approached me, somewhat gruff, and asked “Can I help you?”.  I wanted to say “Yes, can you tell me how I eat in this establishment, I could use some instruction because there is nothing here that is welcoming me in” – but I didn’t.

I asked how long it would take to get an order of spaghetti and meatballs.  My personal opinion is that in any Italian restaurant, you can get a good feel for the food by ordering the spaghetti and meatballs.  If that’s good, chances are the rest of the food will be good too.  I know that sounds oversimplified but I swear it’s true.  I have proved it time and time again.

The answer I received (and I should have known how this would go by this answer) was “just a few minutes”.  Without thinking I said OK.  The man wrote some stuff down on what looked like an order pad, and asked me if it was to-go.  I said yes and walked away.  During the next few minutes I sat on a chair at a table and watched the other befuddled customers walk in.   I don’t want to overstate the customer base here.  There was me, a table with what looked like a mom and dad with their child, and another couple sitting at a table trying to decide what to order and if they were going to eat it there or take it home.

So I sat and thought and it suddenly dawned on me (Friday afternoon after a long week at work is not my best “thinking” time) “A FEW MINUTES?’  Nothing good can come from that; I just had a feeling.  If he could fix me an order of spaghetti and meatballs in “a few minutes” I had a feeling the pasta wasn’t going to be cooked to order.  In fact it was probably cooked several hours earlier, if not the previous day, and was being dunked into hot water to “revive” it.

It was hot and humid in the restaurant.  So when the gruff gentlemen literally yelled out “SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS TO GO!” I walked up to the counter to pay.  I thought to myself “There are only 6 people in this room, he couldn’t have said “Sir your order is ready” or something like that?  His only option was to yell out “SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS TO GO! as if there were throngs of people there and he couldn’t remember which of the 6 of us placed this order not more than 4 minutes ago?

I paid, walked out, and went home.  When I got home and opened up the package this is what I saw.  A to-go food tin with the plastic cover, wrapped tightly in wads of Saran Wrap.  On top of this package was a few slices of “Italian” bread (the quotes mean there was nothing Italian about it) that was stale and dry and accompanied by butter “packets”; the kind where you have to peel the top off.  I poked the bread with my finger and decided immediately it belonged in the dumpster that I shared with the restaurant from which I just bought this food.

I dont’ know how they did it but the texture of the pasta wasn’t that bad.  The “sauce” however, was another story.  I don’t know how you can call what was on the pasta “sauce”.   “Sauce” indicates something that would slowly ooze across the plate if you were to tip the plate.  There was nothing saucy about it.  It was globs of tomato paste.  It was the same texture as the ketchup gunk that collects around the lip of the ketchup bottle.  And with barely a little more flavor.  It didn’t run, bleed, or coat.  It just sat there in a clump.  It was, in a word, disgusting. 

I noticed on the take out menu that there were some dishes that reference “homemade sauce”.  Spaghetti and Meatballs was not one of those dishes that made this reference.  So are there different “sauces”?  Do other dishes get a  delicious homemade sauce with a refined viscosity and the S & M get the gloppy tomato paste?  Somehow I doubt it.  I was so hungry when I brought my food home that day that I actually ate some of it.  The funny thing is that is wasn’t the pasta that filled me up, it was the sauce.  The sauce was very filling.  The meatballs were obviously bought frozen from a food distributor, or from Costco or BJ’s.  The texture was OK but they had a strange garlic flavor.  If they were made from scratch in the restaurant, they need a new recipe.  A recipe that end up with a meatball tasting like pork and beef, as opposed to garlic and THAT SAUCE.

All in all, the Spaghetti and Meatballs had the refined Italian flavor of something you would get if you ordered Italian food at Denny’s, or Applebees.

There are many interpretations of the word Stugazzi in Italian; everything from “stupid” to “idiot” to “d#%k face”.  I’m not sure which one of those apply here but I know one of them does. 

Stugazzi’s in Springvale, Maine, is an abomination of Italian cuisine.   Here’s a description (verbatim) of their world famous Buffalo Chicken Alfredo:  “Fresh  buffalo tenders serviced in alfredo sauce and poured over Fettuccine”.  Sound Good?  Yes, this restaurant has pulled off the impossible and married Italian food with buffalo chicken fingers.  Stugazzi!!!