By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Restaurateur Phil Romano wants to put a few people on notice, namely Dallas restaurant critics. Romano is mad as hell, and he's not going to chew their tripe anymore. To prove he means business, last week Romano slapped Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith and the Belo Corp., the newspaper's parent, with a suit alleging fraud, malice, defamation and an "attempt to cripple the business of one of Dallas' finest new restaurants" via an April 16 restaurant review. That finest new restaurant is Il Mulino New York, the Romano-shepherded Dallas extension of the much heralded Greenwich Village venue founded in 1981 by Fernando and Gino Masci.
What did Griffith do to stoke such wrath? She awarded Il Mulino four out of five stars (3.5 for food). But what steams Romano is the apparent disconnect between that row of stars and the supporting narrative in Griffith's review. "With what she said about Il Mulino, I shouldn't have gotten any stars," Romano argues.
Romano cites a handful of instances to justify his ire. In the review, Griffith posits that Il Mulino's spaghetti Bolognese and penne with tomato vodka sauce are overwrought with butter (not a drop of butter in there, Romano insists); that the risotto is partially cooked in advance and then finished to order (a "scandalous accusation," bristles the suit); and that the porcini-stuffed ravioli with champagne truffle sauce "whispered of Gorgonzola" (no Gorgonzola in the dish, Romano says, though more than a few ingredients could arguably speak in such tangy tones).
Yet it would be ludicrous to file a fraud/defamation/malice suit based on possibly mistaken sauce and rice-prep impressions. So, Romano adds a couple of other charges. He claims Griffith brought restaurateur Janet Cobb to assist with her criticism jaunt, and he describes their relationship as "an unusual one." The suit claims Cobb, who once owned Salve! Ristorante and Mi Piaci, took Griffith with her to Europe to help select wines for Cobb's restaurants and that she feeds Griffith exclusive press releases. Salve! shut down in the summer of 2002, and Mi Piaci was sold to Cobb's son Brian Black, founder of Il Sole, earlier this year. "Upon information and belief, Griffith's review of Il Mulino New York and the subsequent rating was crafted solely to damage the restaurant and to aid Griffith's good friend, Ms. Cobb." While gross month-to-month alcohol sales figures published by the Texas Restaurant Association show that Il Mulino alcohol revenues dipped roughly 11 percent in April when the review appeared and another 21 percent in May, Romano doesn't explain how such a move would aid Cobb's business interests.
Romano's suit also asserts Griffith's review "is riddled with fallacious statements and bizarre speculation." For example, she makes a few comparisons between the Dallas Il Mulino and the original restaurant in New York, even though, Romano argues in his suit, "Griffith has never stepped foot in the original Il Mulino." How does he know this? Romano's suit says he made arrangements on several occasions for her to dine at the New York restaurant. She never showed up, he says, and he discounts the possibility that she slipped in stealthily, a common tactic of most restaurant critics.
Romano says he went through "due process" with his complaints, only to be rebuffed by editors. He says he met with Dallas Morning News assistant arts editor Mike Maza and claims Maza acknowledged problems with the News' star rating system for restaurants. Romano also says that Maza quipped that Griffith's review sounded personal and asked if someone at Il Mulino had "pissed off" Griffith.
"Virtually all of your complaints dealt with matters of opinion," Maza wrote in a May 5 letter to Romano. "I don't see errors of fact that require correction. Dotty stands by her opinions, and the News stands by her."
Griffith and Maza declined to comment. But a Belo attorney issued a statement saying the review was an expression of opinion protected by the First Amendment. "If this sort of claim were allowed to proceed, newspapers and others would have to defend unfavorable reviews of restaurants, books, movies and the like constantly," says Belo's assistant general counsel David S. Starr. "Since claims like this are not allowed under the law, the plaintiff has tried to concoct claims other than defamation--but those efforts cannot hide the fact that they simply disagree with the review. Their disagreement, fortunately, is not grounds for a lawsuit."
But Romano doesn't just want this to be a snit between a single restaurateur and a lone critic. He hopes to trigger a Dallas restaurant movement to blunt a certain strain of reviewer criticism. "A lot of people don't have the wherewithal or the gumption to do something about [an unfair review]," Romano says. "They just let it go. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of restaurants coming out of the woodwork now."
Romano says he had no choice but to file a lawsuit. The News refused to print four letters to the editor challenging Griffith's assessment of Il Mulino, and the paper declined to issue a correction. A lawsuit was his only recourse, he says. But his story isn't the only thing he wants to get out. He wants to keep Dallas Morning News writers out of his establishments, which include Nick & Sam's and Medici in addition to Il Mulino. "One of the things I'm gonna want out of this is an injunction to keep them out of my restaurants," Romano pledges. "They can't do it right. I don't want them in there." --Mark Stuertz