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Eat My Briefs

A mediocre review left a bad taste in Phil Romano's mouth.
Peter Calvin

Eat My Briefs
Restaurant owner takes a DMN critic to court

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

Attention Spanwich

Jeff Sinelli brings it up before he's even asked about it, the reputation he's picked up. He's great at coming up with ideas and putting them to work, not so hot at sticking around to see how it all shakes out. Sinelli can't deny it, considering it's been his pattern since he began his restaurant career in Deep Ellum in 1994. "I'm a creator of concepts," Sinelli says. "I just love the creation stages."

The example most would point to is Genghis Grill. Sinelli opened the Mongolian barbecue on Lower Greenville in 1998, and it was an immediate success. So much so that Sinelli started a franchisee program. Just when Genghis was at the height of its success, he walked away, selling the chain to Consilient Restaurants in 2003.

Most would assume, then, that Sinelli's latest concept--Which Wich, a "superior sandwich" shop that opened earlier this year near Pegasus Plaza--is just another stopover on Sinelli's way to his next creation. And it is. Sort of. The next creation just happens to be part of his current one, revolving around the word "Which" and his clever but simple ordering system, a series of brown paper bags and red Sharpie checkmarks. Sinelli has a "very kind of Virgin Atlantic/Trump-type vision" for Which brands, a wide-screen idea that includes Which Coffee, Which Ice Cream, Which Burger, even Which Tunes, a music partnership with Cary Pierce and Aware Records.

"I hesitate to say Which Airlines, because it's so premature," Sinelli says. Five Which stores are opening in Orlando, Florida, and he's in discussions to open many more. "It's comical yet serious at the same time. It's more of a lifetime, long-term vision for myself and for the brands that I create. Because, you know, I've sold a lot of the things that I've created, and I don't want to be--at this stage of my life--someone that's in it for two to five years and then out." --Zac Crain

Homesick

If you could judge journalists by how well they vet rumors, you'd wonder how we get anything right. In fact, one of the reasons we don't report on most of the media gossip we hear is we know firsthand that newsrooms are the worst place to go if you want to find out what's going on at a media concern. (The best place: advertising departments.)

So it actually surprised us when we checked out the latest big media rumor: that nationally known sports columnist Skip Bayless--formerly of The Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Times Herald, the Chicago Tribune and currently of the San Jose Mercury News--was interviewing to come back to the DMN. Surprised us because it had a shred of truth.

What's true: Bayless misses Dallas, at least somewhat. "This would be a great time to be writing and talking about Dallas sports," says Bayless, currently holed up in Washington, D.C., for three weeks as he guest-hosts ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. "And I was back in Dallas for a few days in July--my first extended time-off stay since I left in early '98. I saw lots of old friends and bumped into lots of old readers and listeners. I kept hearing things like 'We really miss your writing' or 'Dallas really misses your voice'...I was amazed and honored so many people remembered me. It has been awhile."

That got Bayless to admit to a few friends that, yes, his contract with Knight-Ridder (which owns the Merc News) is up September 1 and, yes, Dallas is great. "Maybe that propelled a runaway rumor," he says.

Bob Mong, editor of the DMN, says "no one in editorial has had any contact with Skip." Friends of Bayless, however, say he would come back only if asked and wouldn't put himself in a position to be turned away. Translation: The rumors help "test the waters."

 

Bayless says it's nothing that covert. "I'm looking at other newspaper, dot-com and TV opportunities," he says, "but I haven't spoken to anyone at the News. I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But I'll know soon." --Eric Celeste


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