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Speaking at the James Beard House yesterday, kitchen legend Jacques Pepin suggested it would be best if all food critics were blind.
Since I enjoy using my eyes for biking and reading and watching TV, I'm hoping there isn't a surge of support for Pepin's proposal. But, selfishness aside, I think the principle is also fundamentally flawed, as this week's review of Casa d'Italia proves.
I'm confident that Casa d'Italia, a 10-year old Italian restaurant in Ravenna, would extend the same welcome to diners with limited vision as it granted the sighted guests at my table. And I'm sure that diners who couldn't see wouldn't have much trouble piecing together the aroma of simmering tomatoes and strains of Dean Martin on the stereo and categorizing the restaurant as a classic red-sauce joint. But I think a critic would have a hard time writing about Casa d'Italia if he or she couldn't scan the room, chockablock with Italiana, or mentally calculate the dimensions of the very small kitchen.
Pepin argues that critics are too distracted by what they see. "I think all food critics should be blind so they can get to the heart of the matter," a tweet from the James Beard Foundation quoted him as saying. "Does it taste good?"
That's the right question for a chef to ask. In Pepin's realm, nothing else should matter. But critics, charged with sizing up the restaurant experience, have a registry of different questions to ask on behalf of their readers. "Does it taste good?" is worth asking, but so is "How does this restaurant make diners feel?" and "What can a diner find here and nowhere else?" The critic has to weigh questions as cerebral as "Is this concept intellectually engaging?" and as utilitarian as "Is the salmon fairly priced?" Some of those questions are best answered with the eyes.
If the conversation about Casa d'Italia stopped with Pepin's question, I'm not sure many eaters would end up there. As I wrote in my review, sometimes the food tastes good, and sometimes it doesn't. But I'd still suggest a visit.
The food's-not-perfect-but-go-anyhow review is the hardest kind of review to write. It can offend the restaurant owner, who really believes in his pasta, and confuse readers, who understandably wonder why they can't just make oily sauces at home. But when it comes to determining whether a restaurant is deserving of your time and money, taste doesn't have veto power over the other four senses--or the important senses that aren't included in the Big Five, such as a sense of humor, sense of community, and sense of well-being. Go to Casa d'Italia. You'll see.