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Jun 17, 2007 06:38 PM

Milan, Bebel's -- a dissenting opinion

I spent a half day in Milan before flying home after two weeks in Rome and Venice. It was Sunday, and a lot of the recommended places weren't open, so I zeroed in on Bebel's, which had been reviewed positively both in the recent NYTimes piece on Milan and on this board.

All I can say is, if this is one of the better restaurants in Milan, then Milan deserves its rep as a mediocre food city -- it was the worst meal I had in Italy, especially for the price.

I know they're praised for their risotto, but it's only available for two, so as a single diner that wasn't an option. So I went with the "order things named after the restaurant" strategy -- they put their name on it, they must think it's worthy, right?

I ordered the artichoke salad, the penne alla Bebel's, the carpaccio alla Bebel's, and the house Chianti.

What was wrong?

The bread was inedible -- bad even by Italian restaurant standards (I guess I'm spoiled living in the SF Bay Area, but only one restaurant in Italy served bread that would be considered acceptable for any decent restaurant here). Maybe their bread supplier doesn't bake on Sundays? If so, they should have used that nice pizza oven up front to bake some focaccia, because there's no excuse for what they put on my table.

The salad was simply chopped raw artichokes. Not shaved, but roughly hacked up artichokes that had been prepped hours earlier and had turned tough and brown (when the waitress set them in front of me I thought for a minute she'd brought me mushrooms by mistake -- see photo below). I'll take partial responsibility for ordering wrong (I thought I'd get the marinated artichokes I saw on the way to my table), but even if I liked raw artichokes I would have considered these substandard.

The penne came in a slightly creamy tomato sauce with a few bits of wilted green -- it would have been better if they were basil, but I believe they were arugula, and the whole dish was rather bland and undistinguished. At this point, since everything on the table so far had been inedible, I was famished and scarfed it down.

The carpaccio also had arugula -- waaay too much of it. The picture below was taken after I had scooped a substantial amount of the greens (overly dressed with lemon juice) into the artichoke salad (improving it significantly), and you still can barely see the meat. It wasn't even *good* arugula, at least not compared to the fresh young arugula I'd been served over the trip. Between the greens and the lemon juice, I could barely taste the meat -- a travesty after the sublime carpaccio I'd had in Venice.

But what really ticked me off was the wine. Unlike any of the other Italian restaurants I'd eaten in, the menu didn't list any wines by the glass or carafe, only the bottle. I asked the waitress whether it was possible to get less than a full bottle of the house wine, and she told me no. Apparently this was a communication problem (for which I take some responsiblity) because later I saw her serve the woman at the next table a glass of wine, presumably from the bar. I can only surmise she meant that the wine listed on the menu as the house Chianti was only available by the bottle, but when a single diner asks if she can order less than a full bottle, a reasonably competent waitress would have offered what wines by the glass were available. If I had enjoyed the meal I would have happily drunk a couple of glasses from the bottle and left the rest (as I had earlier in the trip at Piperno in Rome), but halfway through the meal I just wanted to get out of there, and the almost full bottle of wine just made me feel resentful.

So the bill comes -- handwritten -- and I'm trying to puzzle out the numbers: I can't tell if the second digit of the total is a zero or a nine. Zero would be too little, nine too much, so I start checking for additional charges. As I review it, I realize they overcharged me two euros for the carpaccio. This was the final straw! I went up front to the manager and complained: not only did I rant about being overcharged, but I told him it was the worst meal I'd had in Italy. He looked rather taken aback and adjusted the bill. I feel a little remorseful for his sad expression in retrospect, as I realized much later that he hadn't read the ticket any better than I had, and while they'd overcharged me for the carpaccio they'd undercharged me for the wine (he'd read 12 as 1 on one line and 2 on the next line, thus charging me three euros instead of 12 -- which is why the bill hadn't made sense to me in the first place). So at least I didn't end up paying for all that wine I didn't drink (I gave it to the nice couple at the table next to me), but that really didn't make up for the fact that instead of enjoying my last night in Italy I spent the evening running the gamut from disappointment to anger.

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  1. Oh what a shame your last evening in Italy was so disappointing. Actually, what you describe would have put anyone in an angry mood, I think. Could it have been a language/translation problem? Or is it that the restaurant staff thinks they don't have to make an effort?

    2 Replies
    1. re: Gio

      As I said, I take responsibility for the fact that the artichoke salad wasn't what I was expecting, but even then, it was poorly executed for what it was. And I take responsibility for not communicating effectively with the waitress about the wine, but why didn't they have wine by the glass/carafe on the menu like everyone else?

      I didn't get the impression the staff was slacking off, but I don't understand how they could have mangled the bill that badly (mischarging me for two out of five items). It was just an unhappy confluence of negativity. On top of that, I'd been getting very bad vibes from Milan -- that everyone was out to separate me from my money, legally or illegally (someone got pickpocketed on the subway right in front of me) -- and the overcharging exacerbated that feeling. I ended up thinking that Milan exists to make you feel happy to be leaving Italy!

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        Well - Mercury is in retrograde for about 6 weeks - if that's any explanation. I personally don't subscribe to that bit of astrological information, but there are many who do.

        OTOH Milan is one of the world's major commercial and financial centres, and is among the most affluent cities in the European Union. In the grand picture I imagine it is much like any major city in the world scratching it's way to the top of the economic heap. Although I have visited a few cities in Italy, I have never been to Milan, but friends of mine who have come away with the feeling the food is more Austrian than Italian.

    2. I come to praise Milan....

      Ruth I'm sorry that you had a bad experience at Bebel's. I still haven't eaten there and now I doubt if I ever will even though it's just around the block from where I live. That said, and also mentioning that I am much happier in a trattoria or osteria than restaurant, in my opinion Milan beats the pants off Rome, Florence and Venice for this kind of more casual dining. And, putting my money where my mouth is, here are a few places that I swear by.

      Latteria San Marco (San Marco 24)
      Al Pont de Ferr (Porta Ticinese 55)
      Osteria di Vecchi Sapori (Via Carmagnola 3)
      For Pizza: Sibilla (Via Mercato 14)
      Gambarotta (Via Moscova 50)

      Milan has less to see than the aforementioned big three in Italy. It also has less people seeing it and thus caters much more to Italians. For anyone planing a trip to Milan or Rome check out for restaurant reviews.

      1. I'm wondering if you went to the same restaurant that was reviewed in the Times. There are three unrelated Bebel restaurants in Milan. The one on via San Marco (Bebel's) was reviewed in the Times. We have eaten there many times (every time we go to Milan) and have never had a bad meal. Your description sounds like it might be for one of the other Bebel restaurants. If you did go to the one on via San Marco, it's very unfortunate that you had a bad experience, because they normally have wonderful food and service.

        1. I've been there last night, the service was rude, the pizza was terribile and the meat (churrasco) was not that good. The only positive not was the wine: not a big choice but a good choice. Of course the place was packed. Tipically of Milan: trendy places are full of people even if they are terribile. There are so many places where you can eat well in Milan...

          1. I ate at Bebel's during my last trip to Milan. My meal/experience was more than fine (service was outstanding actually), but I still thought the place would be better foodwise. I thought Antica Trattoria della Pesa, Viale Pasubio 10, was much, much better. Very low key but very traditional and someplace I will enjoy returning to in the future.