I’m guessing the Bergen Record recently changed their business model and decided to ramp up their online ad revenue. And how do you get advertisers to pay you for online ads? Traffic. And how do you get traffic to your website? By having your editors share their opinions on cooking and lifestyle and restaurants and stuff? Yeah, maybe a little. How do you *really* get traffic to your website? Answer: allow anyone to use it as a soapbox. And that’s just what the Bergen Record did when it opened up its main site and its Second Helpings food blog to reader comments a few weeks ago. Now, idiots like you and me can post practically anything (although I’m sure they have guidelines as far as what stays up) in response to the editors (and each other).
Did I read Second Helpings to see what Bill Pitcher was reporting on before the comments opened up? Sure, every now and again. But you can bet that I’m checking more often these days, hanging on every word that TruffleWhippedCreamGal says about A Mano or what SherlockGnomes says about the Allendale Bar and Grill. Oh the Record is getting multiple hits from me every day, that’s for sure.
And what brilliant timing for the shift to open comments: they had just published a most unflattering and somewhat brutal review of a well-loved family-run Bergen County restaurant: Biagio’s in Paramus.
I sat here on the morning after the review was published, reading the various comments left by fans of Biagio’s (and more here). I was extremely entertained. People were clearly taking this very personally. “Attack my favorite restaurant!?!?! How DARE you!?!?!?! You, ma’am, have no idea what you are talking about and should be stoned, publicly. I am officially canceling my subscription to the Bergen Record. You need to apologize for being so mean!!! Fire her!!!!!”
The collective reaction was interesting. I mean, you trash someone’s favorite restaurant, and you are, in essence, attacking them. And then people hate you. And I get that. People have no doubt grown up with Biagio’s (the family has owned the restaurant for quite a few years). They’ve had birthday parties there. Graduation parties. Weddings. Hell on each of my two recent visits (a weekend day and a weekday night), there was a party going on in one of the private rooms (they have several for your partying pleasure). The regulars know the owners by name and they’re known by name. That makes people feel good. About themselves. About the restaurant (or, the “establishment”, as its fans like to refer to it in those comments). Biagio’s is woven into their memories, into the fabric of their very being. This, I think, partly explains why they don’t realize that Biagio’s simply does not serve very notable food. Perhaps Biagio’s fans weigh those aspects more than the actual food. Perhaps they really don’t give food much thought to begin with. The former is no doubt true, but I’m not about to discount the latter.
And hey, there’s nothing wrong with not giving food much thought. I don’t give much thought to a lot of things that others are fanatic about: clothing, electronics, cars, and pretty much everything but food (and music). The difference, though, is that my feelings aren't hurt when a magazine reviews my crappy Onkyo receiver and gives it a bad rating: I’m comfortable with the fact that my Onkyo receiver isn’t all that good. It serves my needs, and that’s just fine by me.
But it’s really not important why people like Biagio’s. I’m sure they’re very nice people, some of whom clearly do not spell very well or write very often, but I’m not going to put much more thought into it. All I know for sure is what I think about Biagio’s. You want to know too. Admit it. That’s why you’re here, right now, reading this nonsense. So here you go, complete with crappy cell phone pictures.
On one visit we started off with French Onion soup (I figured I’d try some classic pub grub) and little neck clams in a white wine sauce.
The soup was delivered as requested: well done-cheese. It was a pretty darned good version of French Onion soup. The broth was deep in flavor, without being overly salty. What’s with the crackers? Why does soup come with saltines? Babbo doesn’t serve saltines with their soups, do they? Anyway, I finished every last soggy bit of bread from that soup, and left the saltines.
The little neck clams came out in a hot pot, and unfortunately had succumbed to the intensity: they were tough and overdone. We had a disagreement on the white wine sauce: I thought the sauce was “subtle” and “not too buttery”, whereas my guest saw those characteristics more indicative of something she referred to as “flavorless”. The dish went uneaten.
A pasta dish with sausage and broccoli rabe also came out a litte too done for our taste. The pasta was a bit gummy and the broccoli rabe a bit too limp. The dish had fine flavor though. Just what you’d expect from a dish like this.
Braised short ribs were on the specials menu that day, and I do loves me some braised short ribs. What’s better than a piece of meat that is cooked slow and low until all the fat renders and the collagen breaks down, and the meat takes on the flavor of the braising liquid? Not much is better than that, is the answer. Is that what I got? No. What I got turned out to be two pieces of meat so tough that I could barely cut them with the steak knife provided (you shouldn’t have to cut braised short ribs to begin with). I could tell there was a problem as soon as they were set down on the table. It looked to me like the ribs weren’t prepared ahead of time, and there was a rush-job to get this dish onto the table. Unfortunately, you can’t take short cuts with short rib cuts. I’m not trying to be funny. You can’t.
I don’t usually make a big fuss over issues like this, but when the waiter came by to ask how everything was, I figured I’d speak up. “This is so tough I can’t even eat it.” Before I could get the sentence out, he was reaching for the plate and apologized. “I’ll bring a menu right over.” At this point I really didn’t want a menu. I didn’t want to wait for another dish. When he came back with the menu I explained just that. The server was understanding and said if I changed my mind to let him know, and also said that obviously he'd take the short ribs off of the check. Moments later the manager came over and apologized, and made it very clear that dessert and coffee were on the house, and of course we would not be charged for the dish. We declined his gracious offer, as we didn't really want dessert or coffee.
Simply put, I have rarely seen this type of issue handled with such grace and in such a way where discomfort was completely avoided. I didn’t for a moment feel like I was putting the restaurant out. You never should, but too many restaurants handle these issues by making you feel as if you’ve done something horribly inappropriate. Granted, some customers suck and are inappropriate, but for the most part, I’d think that most gripes are reasonable. The handling of this situation was impressive indeed.
And while I’m on the good stuff, I would like to mention the wine service. We ordered a bottle of red wine. Wine glassed more appropriate for white were placed before us, which made me a little nervous. Was this an indication that the restaurant has no idea how to handle wine?
Not in this case. The manager came by with the wine and presented it, appropriately. I OK’d the bottle, and he poured a taste. None of the usual “would you like to try the wine”? <wine service rant>Of flippin course I’d like to try the wine. The reason I’m trying it is to make sure the bottle isn’t corked or off in some way. The question “would you like to try it” is an indication that the server has no idea what is going on, and upon hearing it you should run for the hills, or if you’re like me, take a moment to train the server, which rarely goes over well.</wine service rant> I tried the wine, said “that’s fine”, and he poured the wine (not to the top of the glass, thankfully), and that was that. A perfectly executed wine service transaction. Restaurants and managers: you could learn a lot from Biagio’s.
Back to the not-so-good stuff.
On another visit I ordered a cheeseburger at the bar. The patty was on the thin side (not my preference), the cheese was melted on the bun a la a diner (not my preference), and the bun was pedestrian and didn’t serve the burger well. The tomato was complete pointless (that’s for a rant outside of this post). The burger itself was quite juicy and cooked to medium rare as ordered. The steak fries were oil-logged and limp. Just horrible.
That manager from the last visit and the owner were behind the bar, joking around with staff, having a good time, while taking care of business. A laugh was shared about a particularly funny Family Guy episode, as details of a beard-growing contest were being finalized. A good, fun, friendly vibe.
While Biagio's dumped a ton of cash into the new banquet facilities, they seemed to ignore the rest of the restaurant. The bar area could really use some sprucing up. Remember your uncle's basement circa 1978? The space has great potential, but it needs a little help. The old fireplace in the dining room is nice (and I'm told was there back when the place was still Lift the Latch), but the carpets aren't. Three ashtrays line the front patio and offer an unappetizing whiff upon entry and egress. You get the picture.
So where does this leave me and Biagio’s? I must say that on a personal and customer service level, I was very pleased with, and even impressed with, the restaurant. The food could obviously be better and it certainly didn't impress me. But I can see how the general public would think it’s pretty good. One of the "best in Bergen County"? "Five star?" (whatever that means) To put it in Randy Jackson's words, "nah, sorry dog, it just ain't happenin."
Biagio's Ristorante and Banquets : 299 Paramus Rd : Paramus, NJ : 201.652.0201