Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Steve DiFillippo's Book

          Before some marketing group Steve DiFillippo hired contacted me, I had never heard of his restaurant, Davio’s. They offered me an advanced reading copy of his book It’s All About the Guest: Exceeding Expectations in Business and inLife the Davio’s Way.
“Oh dear,” I thought, “I’m going to use some of my beloved reading time on this?”


But it turned out to be an entertaining enough read, with some funny and/or harrowing stories sprinkled throughout and lots of advice about running a restaurant business.

Soon, I wanted to go try this Davio’s place out. When Steve bought Davio’s he had “lowered the prices” and “repealed the dress code,” which are two things I love to hear. He had learned from his “Italian grandmother and Portuguese-American mother who were great cooks.” From his Uncle Tony the gardener he “learned what a fresh vegetable really was.” Some of his family was southern Italian, some northern, and he enthusiastically learned from them all. His childhood hobby/obsession was getting into restaurant kitchens. He talked his way in, snuck in, spied on them, and got a fake driver’s license so he could go into Boston to visit more kitchens.
“I like this guy,” I thought.
          “Honey, have you read the menu yet?” My girlfriend was on the couch scrolling her finger along her iPhone.

I opened up a new tab on my computer and looked it up. "Oh dear."
“It looks like it's just a generic American/Italian/Steakhouse menu.”
“Did you see the Insalate of 'Baby Iceberg, Niman Ranch Bacon, and Herbed Buttermilk Dressing'? It's a freaking cobb salad with ranch. For fourteen dollars."
“And you're sure you want us to pay a lot of money and spend a precious meal on this?”
“I know, I know. But I feel I have to for this review. In the book he sounds so passionate about food that it seems like his restaurants must be good."


$6 for a six pack of these mini Philly cheesesteak spring rolls from the frozen section of a Stop & Shop - They tasted more like stroganoff egg rolls. I wouldn't buy them again. In fact, I'm doing a giveaway of the four rolls left in my pack. Tell me your least favorite Italian restaurant for a chance to win. At one point in the book Steve explains that his original packaging for the spring rolls looked stupid. After he got a new design on them there was a transition period when stores still had the old ones. "Whenever I saw our old boxes in a store," he writes, "I would buy them all up, and yes, throw them out!" So apparently even he doesn't really think they're worth eating or giving to his friends.

We went to Davio’s (the one on Arlington Street in Boston) on a Friday night. My girlfriend had agreed to come on the condition that we order only one or two appetizers and then decide whether we wanted to eat dinner there.

The glass of wine I chose ($11 for 5 oz.) was really good. Shana opted to just get a Harpoon IPA ($5.50).
We were given nice bread, some olives, and a few tasty dips.
 I decided we had to try the real Philly cheesesteak spring rolls ($11).
Somehow these were even worse than the frozen ones. The filling tasted like day old hamburger meat, and they were served drowning in either gobs of mayo on one side or ketchup on the other. The only way I could see someone saying they couldn't get enough of these is if they'd never had any fried roll in their lives.

Tagliatelle Bolognese, Braised Veal, Beef, Pork, Tomato Sauce - $27
Pictured is a half portion, plenty for a meal for one person, much less one of several courses. Steve said he wanted to make the “food at Davio’s original and unique.” That’s quite the thing to say about a Bolognese that tasted about one notch up from the spaghetti I was served throughout childhood at a church volunteer function or a booster club appreciation night. I wonder what Steve's grandmother would think of this bolognese.

It seemed bizarre to be sitting in a dimly lit restaurant full of people in business attire drinking wine and taking several courses and then walk past a frozen appetizer display as we left. If they had actually been amazing, I'd be down with it.



In his chapter on mentors, Steve describes his friendship with Julia Child. “You never knew when a pearl of wisdom would drop from her mouth… Eat many courses, but make them small. She always complained that the portions at Davio’s were too big… I knew that American guests expected large portions because they wanted to feel like they were getting a real value… Our portion sizes stayed the same. (It’s all about the guest, right?)”
And of course, he’s right. It seems clear that you will make more money in America if you keep the portions grande instead of lowering the prices or raising the quality. If you care foremost about giving the guests what will get you the most financial gain, you may well have to follow his footsteps.
“If you’re lucky enough to be living your passion, no matter what your business, I congratulate you. And if you’re not yet doing so, what are you waiting for?... you’ll never be bored or unhappy. When I was twenty, my dad expected that I’d join our large and very successful family company. It was a great financial opportunity and hard to pass up, but ultimately I had to follow my dreams.” And if his dream was to make a lot of money on a chain of overpriced Italianish restaurants that are like a combination of Ruth’s Chris and Olive Garden, he has.
“You can start with an idea of your own,” says Steve, “but you have to be willing to respond to guests.”
Maybe at one point Steve's idea was a restaurant with the kind of amazing food that inspired him as a kid, the kind of food you can be passionate about. Apparently the guests demanded heaping gobs of culinary mediocrity, and Steve responded.
If you love amazing food and want to spend your life uncompromisingly making it and serving it to others, the road ahead of you will be challenging and most likely financially underwhelming. I salute you and honor you for it.
If you really want to make a lot of money and spend the majority of your life thinking about and pursuing it, this book may well be *worth a read.

Davio's on Urbanspoon
All quotes are from Steve DiFillippo's book It’s All About the Guest: Exceeding Expectations in Business and in Life the Davio’s Way.

*If you do buy it, you may as well upload your receipt for the free bonus recipes. You can also try to win a $50 Amazon card by telling him your favorite quote. My suggestion is this one: "Some food critics don't like big menus, preferring that restaurants focus on a few core items; I say, why can't we do lots of things and excel at them all?"
Why can't you indeed.