Enoteca Vespaio – South Congress, Austin

I have never run a restaurant, but I imagine that there are three main motivations to doing so: Pleasing the public, A passion for unique food and Profit. Putting bread on the table – the owner’s table, not you the diner’s – is clearly the main motivation, although it might sometimes share first place with one of these others. Enoteca Vespaio left me no illusions as to what their singular motivation is.

My husband dropped me at the door because I’ve had a recent injury inflicted by pregnancy. It’s true: Pregnancy injured me, I can barely walk. He pulled into their parking lot behind the building and I hobbled in, happy to see that there were many tables available. The hostess immediately informed me “You can not sit down until your entire party has arrived.” I explained that he had arrived, that he was merely parking the car in their very own lot, and that I would like to sit down. She refused me.

This infuriated me. It’s not an evil thing to want to make profit, but it certainly will sour anything on the menu if you learn, front and center, that the restaurant won’t let you sit because you would be idly taking up a table  that another customer could be using to begin ordering from immediately. Your comfort as a customer is not a priority: Turnover is.

If my party were a half hour away, or even ten, I could possibly, by a stretch, agree. However, what’s to say that I am not going to order drinks (if not pregnant) while waiting. I know that restaurants make the majority of their money from alcohol sales, so it would behoove them to let me order a few while I wait, rather than stand angrily in the front and thus be less inclined to order more expensive dishes from the menu, because I purposely now don’t want to share too much of my money with them now.

But I am pregnant. I’m not one to claim a throne just for being so, or to treat it as an ailment, but I do think I deserve a little decent courtesy. My leg and back injuries causes great pain while I stand, or sit in a chair without a back (there was a stool at the front). More importantly, I wanted to enjoy a nice meal with my husband (pregnant or not) and that includes settling into a chair, picking an appetizer while I wait for him, and getting the menu into my hands as quickly as possible – because a ravenous pregnant woman is a dangerous beast.

In retrospect, I wish I had followed my furious husband’s advice and just left.

While waiting for the appetizers, I went to the bathroom. Locked, I turned and read an article they had framed, from a local newspaper. If I may summarize, the article claimed that Enoteca Vespaio was authentically Italian right down to the decorations. I barked a small laugh of surprise. The very sentence is an oxymoron. Looking back into the dining area, I noticed the freshly painted walls, the large canvas paintings (with price tags) from a local artist. Then there are the fancy artistic light fixtures and the god-awful music playing in the background. None of this is Italian. Okay, maybe the bad music.

The bathroom was actually the coolest bathroom I think I’ve ever been into. If you can find a way to get into Enoteco just to pee, do it. The bathroom was a piece of art, and entirely un-Italian.

So were our appetizers. I ordered the cabbage, fennel slaw. Wilted, brown, and minuscule in proportion, it practically begged me to get up and walk out the door. My husband, on the other hand, was ecstatic about his Rilletes. Again, pricey for the portion but he claimed they were delicious. He and I were also impressed to find out that they are made in-house. Delicious, and the first good thing to say about the experience, but again, NOT Italian.

Calling any type of cuisine “authentic” is tricky, and futile. One could write an entire essay on the use of the word when applied to cuisine. What makes a dish authentic, and when compared to what? Does each dish have a factual beginning with which we can compare it to? The intricacies of place, terroir, local produce, weather and the evolution of recipes is far too complex to be able to call anything authentic. I am not sure if the owners of Enoteca Vespaio claim to be authentically Italian or not. But they don’t seem to argue with the label; they frame the words and hang them on their walls when others say so.

I am touchy about restaurants in America which feature a collage of European foods and then market themselves as one particular regional cuisine. It’s as if they are saying, well, the food comes from Europe, so we can call it from any one of the countries, right? We can call it Italian and then put dishes such as Salad Nicoise  (French), Caesar Salad (American) Muffaletta (Cajun and containing a small dose of Swiss Cheese, though admittedly, invented by an Italian immigrant), or anything with avocado (all on Enoteca Vespaio’s menu). Would you call a tree a bush just because they are from the same family?

I am reminded of a short conversation that I had with Emmett Fox, the owner of FINO and ASTI, at a recent event. I was intrigued by ASTI’s website description of their menu recognizing dishes from Piedmont, Tuscany and Sardinia. Having traveled to Sardinia twice last year, I asked him which particular dishes had inspired this menu. Instead of offering specifics, he fumbled for a moment and then said, “That description is not really true.” He went on to explain that the menu is inspired by all of Italy and its various regions and cuisines, and that no one region really stands out. Certainly not Sardinia, it seems, as he could not give me a dish that was specifically  Sardinian on their menu.

We then discussed how important it is to for an Italian restaurant in America to be “Italian-American” with the menu, because Americans would not stomach a lot of the things on a typical Italian trattoria menu. I strongly agree with that point (hence the Romaine Leaf Salad with Ceasar Dressing on ASTI’s menu), so why not just say that on the website?  I was disappointed by ASTI’s website claiming dishes were tied to places that I have traveled to and now miss, and then feeling that I had been lied to by the writers of the website who wanted the restaurant to come off as  “authenticly Italian.” (Ironically, FINO, their second restaurant, claims to be from a very  broad mixture of  European cuisines/influences and is much more honest and successful in that regard.)

Back at Enoteca, our food was painfully slow in arriving. Jonathan’s Spaghettini con Polpette was actually delicious, when it finally appeared.  In Italy the veal meatballs wouldbe very small, but in America we eat large meatballs and that is how they were served. It’s an American thing, and there is nothing wrong with that. I had the Squash Soup with Almonds and Crème Fraiche. Oddly unseasonal, but tasty. Unfortunately, nothing that we ate was good enough to expunge my irritation at not being allowed to sit down as my husband parked the car. For that reason, and perhaps the visceral reaction that I have to the color of yellow they chose to paint with (I realize that that is just me), I will never dine there again.

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