I'm sure the poor servers who take my review visit orders assume I'm underfed or crazy. My companions and I never skip a course, and since I'm most interested in assessing the kitchen's various skills, our picks are frequently nonsensical: If a patron asks for a side of French fries to accompany her steak and mashed potatoes, she's probably either carb-starved or a working critic.
So it was a real treat to make my first trip to Agrodolce, the subject of this week's review, all by myself. Freed from the responsibility of filling the table with incongruous dishes, and knowing I'd come back twice more with friends to polish off the menu, I was able to order just what I wanted. I started with a scotch cocktail and bread, followed by cauliflower soup; duck cavatelli, paired with a glass of Valpolicella; and grilled tuna. For dessert, I asked for rice pudding fritters and a glass of Fernet.
To me, that's not a particularly noteworthy meal. But my server apparently thought otherwise. Sometime after I ordered the wine - which she later revealed was the very wine she would have recommended - she returned to my table.
"I have to ask you something," she said. "Are you in the industry?"
While I'd always worried that my scattered orders and endless questions would mark me as a reviewer on the job, I suddenly realized the real mark of a dining pro is confidence and food fluency. (And an affection for Fernet Branca. As Food Republic reported a few months ago, "Chefs love Fernet. Bartenders love Fernet. People who write about chefs and bartenders love Fernet. Mario Batali loves Fernet. It ends about there." To my server's credit, she approached me before I dropped the amaro's name.)
Since I hate lying, I answered the server half-truthfully: Yes, I told her, I waitressed for years. "Do you miss it?," she asked. That response didn't require any tweaking. When I'm sitting in my quiet office, staring at a computer screen, I very much miss the bustle of a busy weekend night on the floor.
When my server brought the bill, the soup and bread weren't on it. "As an homage and a tribute to you being in the industry," she explained.
I suppose it's possible that she knew why I was at the restaurant, and hoped to win me over with the $9 comp. But it seemed unlikely that she'd have confronted me if she did, which put me in the strange position of not being able to refuse the free food without revealing my identity. So I accepted the discount, leaving her with a tip (which I later realized wasn't as generous as it should have been: I made the rookie mistake of not tipping on comped food) and the idea to drink Fernet with rice pudding fritters.
No matter what you drink with the fritters, they're pretty terrific. For more on what works at Maria Hines' third restaurant, check out my full review here. And don't miss Joshua Huston's slideshow, with images of all the dishes which helped nearly blow my cover.