The Customer is Always Right

Except when he’s wrong. And in Italy, more often than not, the customer is always completely wrong.

Picture a nice little authentic Italian ristorante. Joe and Jane traveler sit down to enjoy a glass of Valpolicella and a nice meal after a long day of sightseeing and people-watching. Jane thinks the spaghetti carbonara sounds delicious (and she’s right) so she decides to order it. But she’s worried about her protein intake with all the pasta she’s been eating, and asks sweetly for the chef to put the polpette (meatballs, served on their own) that are on the menu, into the carbonara.

The waiter blanches and stiffens. His eyes grow wide, and beads of sweat start to form along his hairline. He calls over another waiter to confer with him. The other waiter gasps, crosses himself, and with a horrified and disgusted look on his face, turns his gaze towards Jane. He puffs his chest out, the first waiter does the same, and they proudly announce to her in unison that, “Signora, absolutely not! La carbonara con polpette non esiste.” And off they trot to the kitchen, heroes of the day, to relate back to the chef how they saved one of his dishes from utter sacrilege.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Jane and Joe, on the other hand, are puzzled and put off. What do you mean carbonara and meatballs doesn’t exist!? It exists if the chef makes it exist!!! She hadn’t asked for a  substitution even, just for two dishes to be combined. And she was the customer! She starts to feel indignant now. Couldn’t the customer, as long as they paid, have anything they wanted?! She and her husband exchange annoyed glances and mutter under their breath about the better service at East Side Mario’s at home… Wasn’t the customer always right?

Quite simply, no. In North America, we’ve been conditioned to think that A) the customer is always right and B) if you’re the one with the money, it gives you license to dictate the details of the product or service you’re buying. In Italy, the old cliente is not quite as entitled as his North American counterpart, so be prepared to be told a simple “no” accompanied by the helpless Italian shrug (which will soon get an entire post dedicated to it on here).

But back to Jane’s carbonara problem. Carbonara is a pasta dish that exists on its own, with the standard 4 ingredients. It doesn’t change. No one tries to “spice it up” or come up with a “new and improved” spaghetti carbonara. It just isn’t done. Non si fa.  The chef will make the dish just like his his father before him, and his grandfather before him. And if that’s how he learned to cook it, that’s how it will be cooked for the rest of eternity, as long as he has a say in it.

This is the same for most other Italian dishes. Pizza Margherita cannot have proscuitto added to it, because then it would not be Pizza Margherita any more, but another dish that would require its own name. This concept is unfamiliar to most North Americans, who can, in restaurants, substitute this for that, add something-or-other for an extra dollar, choose from 50 types of salad dressing and put ketchup on whatever they like without drawing horrified stares from waiters and other patrons.

Italians love their food as is, so they think, why mess with perfection? And you, the traveler or newcomer to the country certainly doesn’t know better about the food that the Italian people as a whole, have been preparing and enjoying for centuries. So the waiter in his refusal, is sure he’s doing Jane a favour. Even if she is the one with the money, she doesn’t know better, and at the end of the night, she’ll thank him for the delicious carbonara anyways. He’s sure of it.