Food Critic Poisoned!

That stuff will kill you
If there is anything worse for a restaurant than having one of its customers contract food poisoning, it is having that stricken diner be in the process of reviewing the establishment. The good news for Rotelli Pizza Pasta Perfect, at 501 E. Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, is that when I dined there last Sunday it was not for the sake of critiquing the place. The bad news for them is that I am blogging about the near-death experience caused by their pizza just the same.

I had never before eaten at this expanding chain of Italian eateries. My brother had come in from NY for the weekend, and the family and I were traipsing around some Delray crafts fair before ducking into Rotelli for a bite. It was a typical franchised, fast-foody experience, the type I generally manage to avoid, highlighting low quality fare and a young, ill-tempered wait staff. We ordered slices of pizza that were slapped onto a plate without being reheated. We were hungry, thought nothing of wolfing down the slices as they were. End of story....or so I wish.

Driving home later that evening on I-95, I started feeling nauseous. I opened the car windows, but I began sweating, getting dizzy, my fingertips tingling and becoming numb. I put on my blinkers, pulled off to the shoulder, opened the door and SPLAT!!! (I apologize to anyone who had to endure a pungent odor while driving by that spot afterwards.) I will spare the gory details, although anyone who has ever endured food poisoning can envision the rest of the evening and appreciate how beat up I felt upon emerging from my lavatory some eight hours later.

After recuperating (somewhat), I called Rotelli and spoke to Ben, the manager. I politely recounted the scenario to him, and explained that I was informing him only so that he can remind his cooks to make sure to reheat pizza before serving it. "Impossible", he interrupted. "I've been here ten years and nobody has ever complained about this. Our cheese is always fresh, and our cooks would never serve pizza that hasn't been heated." After letting him know that I was quite certain of the cause, he was still defiant, although he at least added that he was sorry and asked to whom he was speaking. When I answered that I was New Times's restaurant reviewer, he apologized in a more sincere tone, and said he would check with his cooks and make certain they weren't serving unheated pizza.

Ironically, I was stricken less than 48 hours after posting a blog about the epidemic of food poisoning that is happening across this country, and my belief that restauranteurs should be required by law to post their restaurant health inspection grades in the front windows of their establishments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that annually 76 million people in the United States become ill from pathogens in food, and more than 5,000 people die. This means that more Americans will have been killed by bad food this past year than American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war.

What has caused this leap in poisonings is the mass-production techniques employed in today's food industry. Mom and pop are no longer purchasing the food and pridefully preparing the meals in their little cafe kitchen. Instead, we have a situation that is explained in part by Rotelli's website: "The team at Rotelli has developed a creative and effective process for serving the highest quality food to your guest — all engineered to ensure the highest aggregate profit margin for our franchisees."

I must be getting old. I remember the days when making a slice a pizza didn't require any engineering. And when digesting one didn't require a medic. -Lee Klein


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