Monday, June 29, 2009

Restaurant Review: Grosseto

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 03/01/09 edition of Lidové Noviny.

It had been a long time since I'd visited Pizzeria Grosseto.

I knew I had blacklisted the place a few years ago, but I couldn't remember why. A rude server, or overcooked pasta, perhaps – one of the usual Czech suspects. With so many bad restaurant experiences under my belt, it can get hard to keep track of what offense happened where.

On a recent Wednesday evening, I passed by Grosseto's original location near Vítězné náměstí. The pizzeria was overflowing with customers, as it has been since the day it opened back in 1996. At that time, the neighborhood had only a few restaurants; now, although Dejvice is still pitifully lacking in dining options compared to Vinohrady or Žižkov, there are plenty of other options. So why does everyone still flock to Grosseto?

For one thing, it's a pizzeria, and everyone likes pizza. And Grosseto really does make good pies; many credit the restaurant with being the first to bring Italian-style pizza to the Czech masses. As the story goes, two Czech would-be restaurant owners, on a visit to the town of Grosseto in Tuscany, approached a pizza chef named Gianfranco Turbanti and asked him to move to Prague. A few weeks later, Mr. Turbanti arrived in Dejvice, son in tow, and set about the laborious task of constructing a wood-burning pizza oven to his very exact specifications.

Before Grosseto, "pizza" largely meant poor-quality dough covered in Eidam, párek, and a ketchup-based sauce. A few real Italian pizzerias, such as Rugantino, were around, but they were largely patronized by expats and tourists, not locals. There were a couple of American-style pizza joints, too: Pizza Hut and New York Pizza, both now defunct, as well as Chicago's Famous Pizza, formerly located in a prime spot on Malé Náměstí but now downgraded to a delivery-only service based out of Pankrác.

True Italian pizza is almost a different dish entirely, and it's the type of pie that has turned out to be most appealing to local tastes – although it, too, varies from region to region and from one pizzeria to the next. Grosseto's crusts are thin but not quite crispy, and have the inimitable smokiness that comes from a good wood-burning oven like Gianfranco's. The selection of toppings is, to my taste, a little heavy on meats, cheeses, and cream (the signature Grosseto pie comes with chicken breast, mozzarella, gorgonzola, and Parmesan) and low on vegetables (they do, however, put arugula on some of their pizzas, as do lots of Italian restaurants nowadays, and they use fresh mushrooms, which many do not). And although their pizza sauce is not very interesting – it tastes as if the tomatoes were taken straight from the can with no added seasoning – the overall quality of the ingredients is good and the pizza is well-made and tasty.

So why is so much of the other food so bad? The pastas were dismal, thanks not to their being overcooked (all of the pasta dishes I tasted were surprisingly al dente), but because they had been boiled in unsalted water. I have written about this particular problems many times before, including, I believe, in my last review of an Italian restaurant. But I will repeat these words again: you must salt the pasta water. Unless a person has cirrhosis of the liver and is following a strict no-sodium diet, there is no reason why any of us should suffer unsalted pasta.

Which I did, when I ate the pappardelle ai funghi porcini (195 CZK) at Grosseto. The tasteless noodles were homemade, at least, but they stuck together in messy clumps; luckily, the unexciting cream sauce contained plenty of porcini mushrooms that partially offset the dish's general blandness. It was a similar story with the spaghetti con aglio, olio e peperoncino (125 CZK), a dish so simple in flavor that it is almost unbearable to eat without salt.

According to the law of inept seasoning, of course, missing salt in one dish must be compensated by too much salt in another. And so it was with Grosseto's terrible tomato soup (48 CZK) and its otherwise good bruschette al pomodoro (69 CZK). The minestrone con verdure (45 CZK), meanwhile, was full of overcooked veggies and too-soft pasta shells; the tiramisu (79 CZK) might have been a winner if the ladyfingers had been soaked in espresso as they should be. Basically, everything other than the pizza was a just a little bit off.

And that included the service. When the waiter brought me the wrong pizza, he argued with me about what I had actually ordered. "You asked for number 27," he insisted. I told him that I had not ordered by number, but by name – I wanted the pizza Parma (185 CZK), which came with tomato sauce, Parma ham, fresh tomatoes and basil, not one with regular ham and a cream sauce. He had obviously guessed at the number and written it down incorrectly. Grudgingly, he took the pizza away, saying the replacement would come in ten or fifteen minutes. It came in 30 minutes, with no apology, long after the rest of my table had finished eating.

Mistakes happen, of course, but when they do, the waiter should be nice about it and try to accommodate the guest as soon as possible. That, however, would have involved him asking the pizza chef to rush the order and therefore acknowledging that he had done something wrong. But admitting to and apologizing for one's mistakes is not, I've noticed, the national forte.

Neither, apparently, is peripheral vision. As I tried to ask for the check, waiter after waiter walked by without a glance in our table's direction, like horses with blinders on. A few meters away, a bored-looking waitress stared off into space as she massaged lotion into her hands. Aha, I thought, so this was why I'd blacklisted Grosseto. Mystery solved.

Now if only they would let me leave.

Pizzeria Grosseto
Jugoslávských partyzánů 8
Prague 6 - Bubeneč
Open Mon-Sun 11:30 – 23:00
Tel.: 233 342 694

photographs: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7 Tomáš Krist for Lidové Noviny; all others


Pivní Filosof said...

Another reason why I don't like Grosseto in Dejvice, and I this applies to all the other branches as well, are those little tables where you can't possibly accommodate two pizzas (let alone three) that are way too close to each other. They try to cram as many people as possibly making dining there a pretty unpleasant experience.

I like (or used to like, haven't been there for some time) is Canzone in Eliašová or Siesta up in Hanspaulka.

Ben Hodson said...

Canzone is still very good. I stop there each Friday night on my way home for Pizza for the family.
I like Grossetto for take out Pizza as well but agree with the service and issues and blandness of other dishes there.

Anonymous said...

I have sworn off Grossetto's for years. Thanks, Laura, for putting my soul at easy that I am not missing anything. My favorite pizza restaurant is on Melantrichova street (name unknown). Across from the three crowns (tre corunni). Lovely pizza and pasta - and shocking, in the heart of downtown. I just wish their tables had more legroom...


John Crane said...

Ok. I just found the name of the restaurant that I think does good pizzas. Funiculi Funicula. It is on Melantrichova street - and worth the stop.

Laura Baranik said...

Great! I'm surprised that any place on Melantrichova is good, too. But I'll definitely try it out.

Hamish said...

Hi, Do you or anyone know when the first Komotra Pizzeria opened near narodni? We used to go there from 1995 and they had great pizzas and I'll never forget the queing down the stairs sometimes! Does anyone know if they are still good?

Anonymous said...

To Hamish

They are closed for several years now. There's some uninspiring Czech restaurant in place of it I believe.

Kacenka said...

No! Kmotra is still alive and well! Still very crowded. I think they were the first Pizza place in Prague. I think they have quite good food for very nice prices. They're on the street "V Jircharich"

Milan Malý said...

I have made the mistake of going to Kmotra for lunch about a year ago and I promissed myself never to go there again. Service was lousy and the food was bordering on inedible...

Jennifer said...

I frequent the Grosseto out in Pruhonice and have no complaints. Perhaps the roominess of the space makes it easier to function (for the staff)...I hadn't noticed the lack of salt, but I'll try to notice next time I order pasta there. I think their meat dishes are lovely - the outdoor grill in summer is fantastic. And the waitstaff is easy on the eyes as well, at least for the ladies and gay men, since there are almost NO women working there...something I always wondered about...

It's funny - we just got back from Italy and had all the same service wackiness that you mention at Dejvice Grosseto at a restaurant in Sardinia - wrong pizza, ages to get the bill - we waited literally half an hour for the bill after asking for it at least 4 times, plus forgotten beverages, etc etc. And we did make an effort to speak Italian, even though it ended up mixed with bits of English and German.

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