Posted by BE on July 4th, 2009
Rarotonga is our second home. We first went there 25 years ago. This is our eleventh or twelfth visit. We’ve lost count.
We come to Raro for the warmth of the sun and of the colorful and eccentric group of friends we have made over that quarter century: the avuncular and somewhat Rumpolian Mike Mitchell, currently the Cook Island Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Immigration; the rambunctious and irreverent Jack Cooper, owner of Raro’s most iconic watering hole, Trader Jack’s; the charming and so very, very English Malcolm Horace Laxton-Blinkhorn, manager of the upmarket Central Motel; and Sue Carruthers and Robbie Brown who own the stunningly beautiful cordon bleu Tamarind Restaurant.
We also go to Raro for the food. Twenty-five years ago Sue, originally from Kenya, was married to Bill, Canadian story-teller par excellence. They were running the Portofino restaurant in Avarua. We had lunch there every day, sitting at a window table, eating divine pizza and quaffing a litre or two of what must have been second-pressing wine that left you sober as a Cook Island judge.
Twenty-five years on, the Portofino is still there, still serving pizza and still run by a Canadian couple, Nancy and Bruce. We thought we’d make a nostalgic return visit.
Nancy greets us at the door with that impersonal pleasantness so characteristic of North Americans. We can eat inside or in the pleasant courtyard garden. We decide on the garden. We order water, a bottle of Shiraz, some garlic bread and a large pizza, topped with ham, onion, mushrooms and olives.
The garlic bread is fine, but the pizza arrives disturbingly quickly. A well-cooked pizza takes time. Our pizza looks unwell – rather pale and sickly. The effect is heightened by the little pieces of stoned, sliced olives dotted sparingly across the surface – pale, sickly and suffering from spots. The cheese looks yellow and under-cooked.
Appearances can of course be deceptive and we decide to give the pizza the benefit of the doubt. Judy will sample the first slice. The pizza has other ideas. The spongy dough base clings desperately to the knife, resisting penetration. The pizza is severely under-cooked. Finally extracted from the base of the pizza, Judy’s slice flops like some dying flat-fish on the back of her knife – flaccid, anaemic and, as the first little bite reveals, utterly tasteless.
We each manage two small slices before deciding to finish our wine and leave. The waitress, noticing the half-eaten pizza, asks whether everything is all right.
“No,” we say, “everything is not all right, the pizza is awful.”
She looks upset and asks would we like to take the rest of the pizza away.
“No,” we say, “we’d really like you to take it away for us.”
A few moments later, Nancy appears.
“I understand you didn’t care for our pizza.”
“No, we didn’t.”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s the way we make them.”
We thought Nancy’s choice of words was interesting. The problem was ours not hers. It had to do with our taste, not with the quality of the food. She used the words “care for” as in the sentence, “I like strawberries, but I don’t care for raspberries. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with raspberries, it’s just a matter of preference.”
It was as if I had said, “I like a beautifully made pizza, but I don’t care for a limp, tasteless pizza. Not that there’s anything wrong with a limp, tasteless pizza. After all, that’s the way you make them.”
On the way out, I couldn’t resist telling Nancy that our response had nothing to do with what we cared or didn’t care for. The pizza was awful, from the elastic dough to the cheap and tasteless sliced olives from a jar.
“I’ll inform the kitchen,” she replied, handing me the bill with no deduction.
Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe this is how North Americans make pizza. I occasionally see people in American sitcoms stuffing bits of limp, cardboard-looking stuff into their mouths. So perhaps I should be charitable.
But as for the once-wonderful Portofino, I’m afraid I don’t care for it. Nostalgia, it turns out, isn’t what it used to be.
I first experienced such astounding arrogance – minus the bad pizza – in holiday resorts along the Adriatic coast. Childhood memories if you like. I remember my mum explaining that it was the inevitable outcome of high tourist turnover coupled with operator ineptitude.
It didn’t take long for me to realise that there was indeed a correlation.
While restaurateurs in ordinary locations will typically do their best to get your return business, establishments in prime tourist spots, especially those with high foot traffic, couldn’t care less, knowing they’d have new bums on seats the next day, regardless.
Reputation used to mean little in this type of environment, hence the arrogance (or thinly veiled contempt).
I actually thought (or hoped) that this type of behaviour was perhaps less prevalent these days. After all, people now blog and twitter with reckless abandon; and let’s not forget, tourist numbers are dropping, so you’d think it would make people like Nancy contemplate their approach, not to mention their competence.
When I did a quick google search, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to find that the business is for sale. Moreover, the listing also said that it’s profitable; but probably not for much longer I thought.
Maybe Nancy had time for some quiet contemplation.
I first experienced such astounding arrogance – minus the bad pizza – in holiday resorts along the Adriatic coast.
My son Ollie, who runs a restaurant in Wellington – Trade Kitchen – always says that a restaurant can get away with indifferent food, but not with bad service. He may well be right.
In this case, we’d have been less annoyed if Nancy had accepted that maybe this wasn’t a great pizza, had apologised or made some attempt to put things right. She did none of these.
After the blog appeared I had a lot of comment from locals and visitors about the Portofino. There was general agreement that the pizzas were awful. BUT most people spoke highly of the rest of the food and especially the ribs and steak.
But if you want great pizza, check out Trader Jack’s
we were there a few weeks ago. sign outside said open at 6:30 called in at 6:15 for dinner and was told basically we are not open till 6:30 so we went else where.
Wasn’t welcoming at all
Could have welcomed us to the bar for a few drinks prior to dinner…
Interesting article. As a former pizza/sub sandwich restaurant owner, and an American, I can assure you the pizza you describe is NOT commonly found in North America. The way you’ve described North Americans as “impersonally pleasant” seems a little sour, BE. As does your comment about the tasteless looking pizza you’ve seen in American sitcoms. You’re not British, are you?
The Portofino is currently for sale, and having visited Raro, I’m currently looking to open a pizza shoppe there myself one day. At over $1.5 million, though, I won’t be buying the Portofino.
If you ever get back to Raro, look for a restaurant with the name Boston in the title. That means we’ve made it there and I’d love for you to sample one of our pizzas. I hope you’ll write us up in your blog afterwards. Cheers!
We visit Raro fairly regularly, so we’ll certainly keep an eye out for you, Johnny. Pity you can’t take over the Portofino, though – it’s a great site. In the mean time, I’ll be satisfying my love of good pizza at Trader Jack’s. (I had to say that, or he’d do me bodily harm!)